There’s a method to the madness that is Aladdin: A Musical Panto, People’s Light & Theatre Company’s 14th annual large-cast musical. This 2013 work is updated and revamped by coauthors Samantha Reading and Pete Pryor (who also directs) and composer Michael Ogborn, and shows the entire company at the peak of their powers.
Especially impressive is how briskly this Aladdin introduces its characters and plot. Each panto is based on a classic children’s story, and adapted for the local audience. In Aladdin, Mark Lazar plays Scheherezade, the famous 1001 Arabian Nights storyteller and a “well bred, well read, well fed” lady. Central on James F. Pyne Jr.’s proscenium stage stands a large picture book, its tall pages providing exotic illustrations for different locations in Paolistein.
After 14 years, People’s Light trusts their audiences to respond freely with little prompting, booing the villain (Christopher Patrick Mullen, outrageous as Fu) and joining in with “oh yes, it is/oh no, it isn’t” bickering. Children are invited onstage, and the traditional candy toss gives everyone a treat. The classic “messy scene” gets toned down to some thrown flour, but it includes a surprise audience-participation game.
Get Twankey with it
More than silliness makes Aladdin succeed. The well-crafted story shows Aladdin (Camilo Estrada) and his friends Manny the Monkey (Peter Danelski) and Morris the Mantis (Zach Aguilar) creating their video game, “A Hero’s Journey.” Fu responds to our villain’s welcome by saying, “Not ‘boo,’ but ‘Fu’ — spelled eff you,” one of many clever moments that likely sail over kids’ heads.
He then plots to overthrow the dimwitted Sultan (Kim Carson, with glued-on beard and fake pot belly) by marrying the Sultan’s daughter, Mai Tai (Samantha Funk). Why must she marry him? “Because I am smart, and old, and a man,” orders her father, sounding like a politician, as does Fu when he tries to inject “alternative facts.”
Fu needs Aladdin to find a genie’s lamp, because only one pure of heart can unlock its powers. The Genie (Nicholas L. Parker) appears, and Fu tries to steal Aladdin’s wishes. Tom Teti as a Genius also joins the fray, with “no magic powers, just good problem-solving abilities.” Nearly every moment makes understated contemporary references, commenting meaningfully on life today. We can’t depend on genies to solve our problems, for example, but a little genius can do the job.
Lazar plays the traditional drag role as he has in every People’s Light panto. Here it’s Aladdin’s mother, Widow Twankey. He’s more delightfully acerbic than ever, prowling the audience to flirt and ad-lib, sporting a different gown in each scene (colorful, witty costumes by Rosemarie McKelvey) with his trademark construction boots. Distinct, high-energy performances are delivered by all with sincere commitment.
Aladdin and Mai Tai take a magic carpet ride (accompanied by the old Steppenwolf song), filmed and projected on the set’s “book.” Hamlet and Star Wars figure in the exciting finale combat, as do the classic video games Space Invaders and Pong, and even silly internet song sensation “Pen Pineapple Apple Pen.” It all makes sense, even to the youngest audience members.
Through it all, musical references and gags — accompanied by music director Thomas Fosnocht III and drummer Kanako Omae Neale — fly constantly. Twankey and the Nurse (Susan McKey) argue in cleverly chosen pop-song refrains. Aladdin and his friends bust out their moves for Men in Hats’ “Safety Dance.” When Aladdin and Mai Tai meet, the West Side Story love theme tells us how they feel. There’s definitely material here for all ages, and no one is left out — except, perhaps, by the boys’ deliberately obtuse computer-gaming jargon, which hilariously perplexes Twankey and everyone over 18.
I’ve loved watching the People’s Light Panto evolve over 14 years from its first homage to the quirky British format to a uniquely American form. This secular holiday family entertainment satirizes current events and addresses modern themes while indulging in the timeless comedy of pratfalls, wordplay, and audience participation.
To read Melody Wong's essay about this show, click here.