by Keith Loria — Most of Bert Bernardi’s adult-life work has been writing original musicals — many aimed at young audiences.
“I’m from the Boston area and came to Connecticut to go to school at the University of Bridgeport, and started working as an actor at a cabaret back in the early ’80s, and I knew that I wanted to be a director,” he said. “I talked to a producer that was there and he suggested I start by doing something small, like writing a children’s show, but that was really daunting to me at the time, because I never really wrote theater before.”
He gave it a shot and fell in love with the sound of people laughing and responding to his work. It was then the light bulb went off in his head — he knew this was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
Bernardi spent 28 years working for that cabaret in Bridgeport, and it’s where he met Jimmy Johansmeyer, who would partner with him, collaborating on hundreds of musicals over the years.
“Eventually, we decided to branch out and go off on our own and follow our own vision and make something that we like to call ‘ridiculously entertaining,’ ” Bernardi said. “We started our own company in New Haven and after a few years, we were invited by the Milford Arts Council to check out their space, and we have had a very happy relationship with them ever since.”
In 2010, the Bernardi/Johansmeyer team created Pantochino Productions Inc., a not-for-profit professional theater company for family audiences, performing at the Center for the Arts in Downtown Milford.
“The theater is a great size for our shows, and a great size for young audiences who are seeing their first glimpses of live theater,” Bernardi said. “It’s been a really happy partnership for us with the Arts Council.”
For the opening of its sixth season, Pantochino will present The Bewitchingly Scrumptious and Extraordinary Mister Trick & Mrs. Treat, being staged weekends Oct. 21-Oct. 30.
The new musical was written by Bernardi, and composed by Justin Rugg. It was written with Halloween in mind, and follows two unlikely neighboring families who each have their own unique way of celebrating Halloween. When they put their heads together, it may just be the origins of how the spooky holiday is celebrated today.
“I’ve been writing for such a long time, and keep a list of great ideas that I want to write someday, and this just seemed like the perfect show to do now,” Bernardi said. “It’s a show about two families — the Tricks and Treats — and I envisioned this Tim Burton-esque sort of world, and it’s like a gentle Hatfield and McCoy type of relationship.”
Through the songs and family traditions, audiences will see how things such as costumes, carving pumpkins and giving candy may have come about.
“Justin has written a score which is so much fun and sort of feels like the spirit of Halloween,” he said. “That whole mischievous quality and spooky feeling one might expect.”
Johansmeyer serves as producer and costume designer, which Bernardi noted is vitally important to this imaginative show.
“The clothes are very astounding and very unique and unusual and what you might expect from those in a Burton movie to wear,” he said. “They are very modern, but very in-period as well.”
Johansmeyer will also appear on stage as the mischievous Mister Trick, alongside Mary Mannix as Ordelia, George Spelvin as Payne, Gavin Conte as Thorn and Hannah Duffy as Ursa Luna. On the Treat side of the stage, Shelley Marsh Poggio plays Mrs. Treat, with her family consisting of Annabel Wardman as Tootsie, Justin Rugg as Charleston, Andrea Pane as Clark and Maria Berte as Eclaira.
“It’s a professional cast, although we have two young local actors playing the youngest kid in each family,” Bernardi said. “A lot of these actors I have worked with over the years, and we have such a great shorthand working with each other.”
The second production of the season will be a holiday show called The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus, based on a little-known book by L. Frank Baum (author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz). It will be staged Dec. 2-18.
“It’s such a lovely book. It’s based in a fantasy world — a forest where these immortal creatures discover a human baby and raise him and he becomes Claus and how the kindness he was shown gives him his mission in life, which is to help children,” Bernardi said. “It’s a pretty sprawling story for our company to do, but you’ll get to see Claus as a boy, a teen and finally as a man, discovering how he came to be the beloved character he is today.”
For both these shows, Pantochino will continue its popular “Party Performances” at its Saturday 2 p.m., performances, where audiences will be seated at tables and chairs and are invited to bring their own food and drink to be enjoyed during the show.
“Getting the family together to experience one of our shows, and having something for everyone to enjoy, there’s just nothing like seeing a live show,” he said. “I think it’s important for children to experience live theater at a young age. It’s just not on a screen. It helps with their imagination and building the theatergoers of tomorrow.”
The third show of the season is Nonni Cimino’s Kitchen, which Bernardi describes as “a very personal story and one that is a little different for us.”
“I’m writing it about recollections I have about growing up in a big Italian family in the 1960s,” he said. “It pays homage to my grandmother and where I came from. I find real life can be more interesting sometimes, and when you come from a big family, there’s a lot to explore.”
While the show will probably appeal to adults a bit more than kids, Bernardi still believes it’s great family entertainment but welcomes the adults to check the musical out by themselves.
“I think many adult couples are discovering what we do and finding that we are a very affordable alternative to going into New York for the evening,” he said. “We like the idea that we are developing this audience with these original musicals.”
The Bewitchingly Scrumptious and Extraordinary Mister Trick & Mrs. Treat will be performed Oct. 21-30, Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 online or $22 at the door. For more information, visit pantochino.com.