There are few Philadelphia-area holiday traditions quite as inclusive as People's Light annual musical panto. It provides, without any grinchy implications, an alternative to seasonal religious celebrations. It's fun for all and all for fun, an entirely appropriate position, particularly considering the subject of this year's effort: The Three Musketeers (The Later Years).

Newcomers to the panto, primarily a British yuletide entertainment, will see some standard practice in this year's model. Expect slapstick humor, vociferous audience participation, local references, and the "Dame," a big-boned, good-natured drag queen. Here, that title is literal: Mark Lazar returns as jovial Queen Agnes of Malvaria, a long-absent regent who left her son King Hughy (Tabitha Allen) in the care of evil Lord Guido Mazarotti (Pete Pryor, who also directs).

The Musketeers' role in this power triangle is a little messy, in the best sense, when Athos (Owen Pelesh) and Porthos (Brad DePlanche) indulge in some shaving-cream high jinks. But it's also kind of a mess in the larger sense. Kathryn Petersen's script has some hilarious characters and moments, but it's altogether too long, and its first act contains precious little swashbuckling, and Michael Ogborn's songs lack the hooks or clever lyrics that characterized some of their previous pantos.

It's also mystifying why, in a genre relying so heavily on over-the-top drag, Dito Van Reigersberg (a.k.a. tart chanteuse Martha Graham Cracker) was cast as a tamped-down, sad-sack hound dog and directed, for the most part, to act like a sad-sack human. At least Pryor's direction allows Allen's Hughy, gangly and petulant with a pair of manic video-game-addicted thumbs; Leah Walton's Henrietta, an enthusiastic housekeeping chicken; and Laura Giknis' Kestral, a ditzy, malevolent falcon, to indulge their significant talents for physical comedy.

Meera Mohan's ingenue, Colette, also charms, with good-natured spirit and a singing voice that places Robert Smythe as her intended, D'Artagnan, at a clear disadvantage. Smythe's puppetry, however, in a cool, climactic black-light battle, recaptures some of the show's excitement (though Lucas Fendlay's sound design provides the ongoing thrill of never knowing when an earsplittingly loud falcon screech will startle you out of your seat).

Bridget Brennan and Alisa Kleckner's colorful costumes, especially Agnes' bustled concoctions - which include a horse-and-buggy skirt and pink gown with padlocked bodice - provide plenty of eye candy to go along with real candy tossed at the audience. But this year, there's too much sweet and not enough meat; even with all it has to offer, the musketeers' later years left me wanting more.



The Three Musketeers (The Later Years)

Through Jan. 10 at People's Light, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern.

Tickets: $35-$60.

Information: 610-644-3500 or PeoplesLight.orgEndText