Hans Christian Andersen Meets British Pantomime

The Fremont Players brings to the stage a lively rendition of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes, but with several key differences: the main character is an Empress instead of an Emperor, the tale is set in a modernized world of fashion shows and brand collaborations, and the folktale is now in the form of interactive theatre. British Panto, otherwise known as Pantomime, is a genre of musical theater paired with comedy that is catered to a juvenile audience yet also attempts to satisfy adults with hidden innuendos and other sorts of adult humor. It’s usually based on a classic fairy tale and is characterized by loud and colorful characters, gender-crossing actors and talking animals. The best part is probably the ability to interact with the cast, by singing alongside them, screaming “look behind you”, contradicting the characters and even booing at the villain.

Hans Christian Andersen is well known for his fairy tales, such as The Little Mermaid, The Princess and the Pea, The Ugly Duckling and The Little Match Girl. Amongst his most famous stories is the Emperor’s New Clothes, which is about a conceited emperor who prioritizes his fashion over his people and his empire’s needs. Because of this, he gets fooled by two swindlers into purchasing the highest quality clothes that can only be seen by intelligent and competent men. The clothes are nonexistent, but the emperor doesn’t want to admit that he can’t see them as it would mean that he’s stupid or unfit for office. The tale serves to warn children against pretentiousness and having a sense of pride that hinders honesty.

In The Fremont Player’s version, The Empress’ New Clothes, only those who are “fashionable, smart and loyal” can see the clothes, as the play focuses more on the fashion aspect and even makes the capital into a fashion magnate. The plot, other than the classic Andersen tale, is about an upcoming fashion summit that will reestablish the kingdom as a fashion icon and secure trade and an alliance with Gucci.

It’s a little bit tricky, however, to make the Empress’ reckless spending believable while still making her a likable character, which is something this play attempts. Andersen’s story works because it’s a simplified tale that relies on an extremely superficial emperor with no redeemable qualities. It doesn’t go into details of politics or philosophies, instead, it’s straightforward and makes its message quite clear. When trying to make the story more representative of modern politics, it’s hard to believe that anyone would be willing to spend their entire empire’s wealth for one fashion summit, no matter how successful it will be. This, of course, probably goes over the children’s heads but it does make a classic tale a bit less enjoyable for an adult.

Additionally, it seems some of the cast members were having a rough day, as they stumbled over their lines and delivered a lackluster performance, even with their spirited costumes and dialogue. Sometimes, rushed dialogue also made it hard for the audience to properly respond to their cues. Two noteworthy exceptions to this were Marilyn and Myron Sizer, the two sheep paparazzi – obviously referred to as baaparazzis –, who brought energy and humor into their performances and made the loudest bleating sounds. Truly, they were refreshing and committed to their characters.

One of the highlights of the Pantomime was definitely the Fremont Philharmonic Orchestra, with a clarinet, saxophone, euphonium, tuba, guitar and drums that were delightful to hear and kept the energy high and lively. I was pleasantly impressed by their skill and joyfulness.

Despite it not being the most believable show for adults, the children present were clearly enjoying the whole experience, sitting up front and standing up in excitement when prompted to interact. It is a good theatre genre to let your kids explore as a way to immerse themselves in a type of storytelling that gives them a voice and a space to scream, have fun, use their imagination and learn valuable lessons about life. The music and the Andersen charm do make this an enjoyable experience to share with kids and to dive back into your own inner child.

The Empress’ New Clothes | The Fremont Players, at the Sunset Hill Community Club | December 17-18 and January 7-8. Shows at 1:00 and 4:30 pm.

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