By Keith Loria
It was back in 2010 when Bert Bernardi and Jimmy Johansmeyer co-created Pantochino Productions Inc., a not-for-profit professional theater company for family audiences, performing at the Center for the Arts in Downtown Milford.
Since that time, the company has grown in a myriad of ways; including the growth of its immersive teen theatre, its after school drama clubs is in, or about to be in, every Milford elementary school and its partnership with the Milford Arts Council has become stronger than ever.
“Live theatre sparks the imagination of young audiences. Seeing theatre at a young age inspires a love for theatre that will last a lifetime,” Bernardi said. “Unlike a movie where you sit back and watch, with live theatre you lean forward, you engage. At Pantochino, we love seeing the family gathered around a table, enjoying, experience our shows together. Unplugged from games and screens, and being a part of an audience’s, growing, learning and celebrating family.”
After six years, word is out that Pantochino is a unique, boutique theatre company offering professional quality performances at a very affordable ticket cost. Last season saw almost every performance sell out, and the Bernardi/Johansmeyer team wanted to top it this time around. Prepping for the new season began with coming up with the themes and titles they thought would be strong.
“Since all of our shows are original, we start with coming up with a list of ideas that inspire all three of us (Bernardi, Johansmeyer and Justin Rugg who composes the music),” Bernardi said. “We want to all be excited by the ideas we come up with. From the script to the look to the sound, we all want to be on the same page. We look for ideas that are fresh, fun and above all are for family.”
The opening show of this season will be “How To Be A Good Witch!” running Oct. 20-29.
The Halloween-themed production, written by Bernardi with music by Rugg, follows Rae, the youngest member of a family of witches, who is ready to cast a spell of goodness on all things having to do with Halloween. When she discovers a magical book, all kinds of wonderful wizardry and witchcraft unfolds including a pair of mismatched witches anxious to guide the young girl on her journey.
“How To Be A Good Witch is a bright, happy, positive story about growing up,” Bernardi said. “Making choices, following your heart, being who you are — these are the themes of the show. It’s set against the backdrop of Halloween — but a fun, cheery Halloween (not a spooky one).”
Johansmeyer will appear onstage with Pantochino company members Mary Mannix, Shelley Marsh Poggio, Maria Berte, Justin Rugg and Hannah Duffy. Joining them are Sydney Maher of Milford and Kristina Rizzardi of Shelton.
Among the characters who add to the fun are Rae’s vaudevillian wizard Uncle Wink, a kooky librarian Mrs. Gurney, and two of the most fun witches you’ll ever see.
“I took a lot of inspiration from the TV show, “Bewitched.” I’m not sure audiences will get that, but it certainly helped me, as a playwright,” Bernardi said.
Next up will be the holiday show, “School for Elves,” a positive, inspiring story about a place called Yule School and the elfin inhabitants who all wish to work for the jolliest elf himself, Santa.
“All of us here look forward to the holiday show each year,” Bernardi said. “I think it’s going to be simply delightful.”
In the Spring, Pantochino will follow up on the overwhelming success of last season’s show, “Noni Cimino’s Kitchen” with a sequel of sorts, “Italian Wedding Soup,” about a wedding in a great big Italian-American family.
“It really is the mission of our company to entertain, engage and enlighten family audiences with 100 percent original new works,” Bernardi said. “Creating is everything. I know our audiences appreciate hearing and experiencing new stories and new songs, and we’re so grateful to our adventurous audiences who come along for the ride each year to see what we will do next.”
New this season, all Friday and Saturday performances will feature cafe seating at tables and chairs. Patrons are invited to bring their own food and drink during the show. Sunday performances will be sat in traditional row seating.
In addition, to its shows, the theater company has a successful and thriving Teen Theatre program, a popular in-school program (called “After School Drama Club”) where its weekly rehearsals culminate in the presentation of a new musical, customized especially for each school, and a wildly popular Summer Theatre Camp in Downtown Milford.
“We hope to continue to make connections with the business and corporate community in the Milford area,” Bernardi said. “They too, now know who we are and are coming on board as sponsors. As a not for profit organization, it’s so important to have the support of the community. We love being in the heart of Milford.”
“How To Be A Good Witch!” will be staged Oct. 20-29 with shows Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. at the Milford Center for the Arts, 40 Railroad Ave. South Tickets are $20 online or $22. at the door. For more information, visit pantochino.com.