Stages’ Newest Panto Offers Pensive Alternative to Today’s Disney-fied Musical Theater

Macy Herrera as Hairielle / photo by Melissa Taylor

Panto Little Mermaid is the newest addition to Stages’ growing repertoire of fairy tales reimagined as “panto” theater.


For the uninitiated, “panto” is a very British form of theatrical entertainment, with roots in 17th century Italian commedia dell'arte, where familiar stories are given a contemporary, sometimes cynical spin, using slapstick, double entendres, and musical parodies of popular tunes. Audiences are encouraged to shout at the performers, who regularly break character and the proverbial “the fourth wall.”

Riffing on the 1989 Disney animated film, Panto Little Mermaid (through Dec. 31)tells the story of Hairelle (played by Macy Herrera), a 16-year-old mermaid who lives with a menagerie of wise-cracking sea creatures at the bottom of Galveston Bay, “where the water is questionable and there’s garbage a plenty.”

Accordingly, when we first see Hairelle, she’s combing plastic trash out of her long, Manic Panic-colored red locks. Kind of a bummer way to begin a holiday family show, but Stages figures kids who are genuinely concerned about the future of our planet will relate. (Greta Thunberg was a year younger than Hairelle when she began her environmental activism, right?)

However, like its message of impending environmental disaster, much of the humor in the show is very adult, with references to Enron, booze and epidurals (Hairelle’s BFF is a pregnant male seahorse). There are also several subplots shoehorned into the script to articulate a laudable overall message of inclusivity, but may end up creating more confusion than insight for little ones. Parents might want to take all of that into account when attending with their young audience members who brought Little Mermaid dolls to the show.

So, while some theater-goers may feel Panto Little Mermaid doesn’t quite capture the holiday spirit, others — especially parents of precocious children who, like Hairelle, are ready to surface and walk on their own two legs — it might be just the ticket. It’s truly an original, and refreshing alternative to the Disneyfication of musical theater.

Stephanie Jones, Macy Herrera and Catherine Pope / photo by Melissa Taylor

Holland Vavra as Pursula / photo by Melissa Taylor

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