People’s Light presents ‘Aladdin: A Musical Panto’

Aladdin: A lad insane-ly good

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.

Susan McKey's Nurse, Camilo Estrada's Aladdin, and Tom Teti's Genius. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

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.”

People's Light's annual panto offers fun for audiences of all ages. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)
People's Light's annual panto offers fun for audiences of all ages. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

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.

Spectacular spectacle

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.

Our readers respond

Melissa Dunphy

of Philadelphia, PA on December 01, 2017

I read this review days ago, and it has haunted me since. I grew up a Chinese girl in Australia, a country that in the 1980s and 1990s was still stuck pretty firmly in the Yellow Peril myth when it came to Asians (the perhaps equally damaging Model Minority myth had not quite taken hold, as there wasn't yet a sufficiently large Muslim refugee population to pit Asians against). Asians like me had to endure frequent open discussions on the political public stage and in private conversation about how Asians are coming to Australia, changing the (white) culture, and taking jobs that by implication should have gone to (white) Australians.

Like many Asian Australian kids, I was mocked for my last name Shong (usually with ching-chong rhymes), teased with caricatures of slanty eyes (even though my eyes look far more like those of my Greek biological father), and more. I learned to laugh it off and ignore it outwardly, but by the time I was a teenager, I had developed some damaging ideas about my own culture and Asianness that it has taken years as an adult to acknowledge and unravel. I doubt the kind of experiences I had growing up in Australia would be unknown to Asians in this country.

Soooo. This review of this show ... it ... bothers me. Both the review and, from what I understand of it, the show itself. I went to school with a girl called Stephanie Fu, from seventh grade through to senior year. It's a pretty common Chinese last name. I can't stop thinking about a hypothetical little girl called Stephanie Fu in the audience of this show, and what she might be feeling and thinking while watching her name crudely mocked (if you think kids aren't picking up on "eff you," I think you might be a little naive) on stage by white people dressed as classic Yellow Peril archetypes. So, yeah. Haunted.

Editor's Response

You will be pleased to learn we have an essay on just that topic in the works right now.

Chris Braak

of East Norriton, PA on December 01, 2017

It seems a little surprising that even given we're talking about one of these "traditional, old-fashioned, mostly a bunch of dumb jokes for kids" shows that we're going to let obviously racist caricatures (a villain straight out of a Yellow Peril serial from the 1930s, an Asian princess named after a Tiki Bar cocktail) and obviously transphobic ideas (a man in drag tromping around in combat boots) go by without any sort of condemnation. I understand, of course, that the idea behind a "holiday panto" like this is to juxtapose crudity with the solemnity of the season. But now that it's the 21st Century and we know for sure that there's no such thing as ironic bigotry — that it's just the back door into the house of ordinary old bigotry — surely we ought to be calling out writers like Reading and Pryor for wallowing in this kind of bullshit, rather than excusing it as part of the form.

Given the fact that this is meant to be a goofy, irreverent show, and there's no obligation at all to adhere to either the original text (itself a racist, orientalist inclusion into 1001 Nights) or to whatever terrible things that the British thought were funny 200 years ago, doesn't that mean that the authors had a wealth of choices for jokes they could have made that didn't trade on dehumanizing crap

I'm extremely disappointed that People's Light thought this kind of stuff was OK, and similarly disappointed that there's anyone inclined to let them get away with it.

Quynh Mai Nguyen

of Philadelphia, PA on December 05, 2017

"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," writes Mark Cofta. Hardly clever. In fact, uncultured and downright degrading.

When I was a child, adults would ask for my name and I would respond, "Mai." They would look at me, pause and say, "Yes, what is your name?" Confused, I would repeat myself and say, "Mai." Eventually, I'd realize they didn't understand that my name is actually "Mai." When I went to college, adults still didn't understand that my name is "Mai." Frustrated and embarrassed, I began going by my other name, Quynh, because I thought it was more American and it would help me acclimate. After years of unraveling my shame and embarrassment at being Vietnamese American and having more pride in my culture and where my family comes from, I now introduce myself as Quynh-Mai.

I understand how a play on words can be funny. But why does it have to be at someone else's expense? I hope that my experience gives others insights on why this is not acceptable.

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