Review: ‘Sleeping Beauty’ panto is a riot of fun

Rotimi Agbabiaka as the evil Hernia the Witch is a crowd pleaser in the premiere of “Sleeping Beauty” at the Presidio Theatre in San Francisco. (Photo by Terry Loran)

On the back cover of the program for “Sleeping Beauty” at the Presidio Theatre (a large, glossy, full-color program, unusual in today’s post-pandemic, cost-conscious times) is a photo of the team that put together what is now, hopefully, San Francisco’s annual Christmas panto.  

I stopped counting the number of cast, artistic, technical and production team members at about 60.  

That’s all to say that the creators of this goofy, sometimes witty and entirely family-friendly “Panto in the Presidio” (Peggy Haas, executive producer) apparently spare no expense in putting on a lavish show. 

A panto is a traditionally British form of holiday entertainment that so far hasn’t quite caught on here across the pond. Wikipedia describes it as including “songs, gags, slapstick comedy and dancing” as well as gender-crossing actors, topical humor and a story based on a well-known fairy tale. Audience participation—shouting at the performers—is encouraged.

All that is present and accounted for in abundance here.  

In the familiar story, an evil witch curses a newborn princess. If she is pricked by a needle before her 16th birthday, she’ll fall asleep forever—unless she’s awakened by a kiss from a prince. 

The simple tale is an excuse for the creative team to throw all sorts of peripheral characters onstage along with the principals, all to good effect: a trio of nervously cackling chickens in bright red platform shoes and large, silly bonnets (the show’s wonderfully excessive costumes, by Alina Bokovicova, might have been inspired by “Beach Blanket Babylon”); the prince (Matthew Kropschot) and his best friend, a preening, lascivious rooster (Andre Amarotico); a trio of fairies; a pompous courtier (the inimitable Danny Scheie in full shrill, sarcastic mode); the dimwitted king (Gary Stanford Jr.); the cook (Curt Branom); the princess herself (Sharon Shao); and many more.  

Perky poultry in “Sleeping Beauty” are, from left, Phaedra Tillery Boughton as Mission Burrito the Chicken, Andre Amarotico as Pecker and Jen Brooks as Sourdough the Chicken. (Photo by Terry Lorant)

Best of all, there’s Rotimi Agbabiaka as Hernia, the most evil witch imaginable, all in black with lethal-looking fingernails. 

There’s even a Wandering Fairy in the lobby, the beloved clown-about-town Sara Toby Moore. 

Some of the actors, and some of the characters too, also appeared in last season’s “Aladdin.” 

Danny Scheie is a delight as the pompous Major Major in “Sleeping Beauty.” (Photo by Terry Loran)

The script, by Stephanie Brown and Richard Ciccarone (Mason Williams is credited as “creative contributor”) is just as daffy as it needs to be. While there are no X-rated innuendos, there is a pole-dancing sequence.  

Characters have the names of local places (Princess Sonoma, a dog named Embarkadero, etc.). And the songs, ranging from “Luck Be a Lady Tonight” to the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” all with new lyrics, are accompanied by a small band (Bill Keck, musical director) below the stage.  

Throughout, director Liam Vincent keeps the action going at a brisk pace on the stage’s rotating platform. It’s no small feat for a show in a mid-sized theater with 18 performers onstage, sometimes all at once, singing and dancing. Stacey Printz’s choreography is pitch-perfect. 

Most mesmerizing, maybe even distractingly so, are Peter Crompton’s almost wrap-around video projections. The variety of interior and exterior scenery feels almost too rich, too sumptuous for what is basically a show for children. Though on opening night a few adults were jumping out of their seats to catch the candy that the performers were throwing out into the audience. 

The standout character, the one that is likely to always get the most rapturous applause, is, of course, Agbabiaka’s wicked witch. Feel-good holiday spirit aside, audiences love a villain.

“Sleeping Beauty” continues through Dec. 30 at Presidio Theatre, 99 Moraga Ave., in San Francisco’s Presidio. Tickets are $20-$40. Visit   

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