Stage Outgrowing the kids
In an era when many stage companies are struggling to hold on to audiences, Milford’s Pantochino Productions sold out all of its performances this season.
The company has broken the children’s theater mold with sophisticated, original takes on fairy tales and other stories often aimed at children, but done by Pantochino with such flair that adults have been known to show up at the theater without any kids in tow.
(The name of the troupe is derived from “Panto,” the traditional British family theater genre that bends popular children’s stories with modern music and current references, and “Chino,” the Milford theater’s monkey mascot.)
“We’ve always steered away from the children’s theater label,” artistic director Bert Bernardi explains. “That isn’t what we have ever done. I didn’t see a lot of children at (the company’s most recent show) ‘Italian Wedding Soup.’ I think with that one we dialed back to (the tone of) a 1970s TV sitcom.”
Pantochino is an outgrowth of the work that Bernardi did at Bridgeport’s Downtown Cabaret Theatre for many years before he created his own company in 2010. What has set his work apart from other children’s and family theater companies is the fact that Bernardi has only staged new material, almost all of which he has written himself.
Bernardi has two crucial partners in designer Jimmy Johansmeyer and composer Justin Rugg, who are responsible for the look and the sound of the shows.
“There’s some pressure in doing an all-original slate but what we hear all the time is, ‘Thanks for doing something I haven’t seen before,’” the artistic director reports.
Adults bringing their kids to what DCT called its “children’s theater” unit wound up loving the sharp, pop music-laced shows. Since the establishment of his own company, and the move to Milford, the growth of a more diverse audience has continued.
In addition to its family musicals, Pantochino also produces “Nite Spot Nights” at the Milford Center for the Arts, featuring top Manhattan cabaret and club artists. Bernardi is thrilled that New York theater and cabaret legend Charles Busch will bring a show to Milford next season.
The Pantochino audience has grown to the point where the Milford Arts Council will be giving the company more dates next season to accommodate the growing demand for tickets.
“We probably could have run ‘Italian Wedding Soup’ another month,” Bernardi notes.
“Milford has been so welcoming to us,” Bernardi adds. “Not only the people, but the city. The Chamber of Commerce gave us a special Award of Distinction for Cultural Contribution...so that now we can speak to anyone and everyone in town.”
Pantochino will open its fall season with the world premiere of a new musical based on the hit Netflix series “Beatbugs,” which follows five bugs in Strawberry Fields — all to the accompaniment of new versions of Beatles songs.
“I saw that it was coming out as a stage play and made a call to someone I know at the licensing company. I met with the writers and the producers and I think it’s a great match,” Bernardi says of being the first presenter of the show.
Pantochino is also soliciting submissions for a special weekend next March devoted to the development of new musicals. The company is calling it POW — short for Pantochino Original Works. The submission period began on June 1 and will run through December. (Details can be found at pantochino.com).
The artistic director says he would like to find new material by other writers. “I don’t want us to become the Bert Bernardi Theater. I’ve told Jimmy that I can’t write everything forever. I’m looking forward to just working as a director on ‘Beatbugs.’ ”
Pantochino is still looking for its own home, but Bernardi is pleased that the Arts Council will be giving the company more dates for shows next season. The venue next to the Milford train station is used for a wide variety of live events and gallery exhibits throughout the year.
When I ask Bernardi how his company has managed to fill every seat while other theaters struggle, he says, “I don’t know that there’s a formula. I’ve gotten that question before and I think part of it is being very lucky. People have followed along from the days in Bridgeport.”
“I do have to say that we take pride in every aspect of a performance. Jimmy is an amazing designer — he learned in Bridgeport how to make the most for very little.”
The artistic director also cites his house composer Justin Rugg as a key element in Pantochino’s success: “His music is something else. I’ve been watching him grow as a composer for the past seven years and I think he’s going to go much further than this.”