Maybe it was a happy accident. Maybe not. Following the success of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, the most recent Broadway musical to be adapted from a Disney animated feature is Aladdin, though its inspiration appears to come not so much from the film but from that cherished style of British musical comedy theatre, the pantomime, or panto as it’s more affectionately called.
Largely unknown in America though occasionally referenced in this column, the panto has nothing to do with those French mime artists in white makeup pretending to be trapped inside an invisible box. It’s a beloved stylized form of theatre that emerges every Christmas season in towns, seaside resorts, and cities all over Britain.
Fairy tales, principally Cinderella, Peter Pan, Babes in the Wood, and Aladdin are presented for the family in shows consisting of songs, slapstick comedy, puns, gags, sometimes topical, sometimes naughty in the tradition of a Benny Hill double-entendre, and nowadays often starring a known personality capitalizing on his or her TV soap opera career. American performers such as Henry Winkler, David Hasselhoff, and even Pamela Anderson have flown overseas at Christmas to appear as leads in a pantomime. No joke, Winkler’s Fonz as Captain Hook is said to be a classic.
And one more thing. Audiences are encouraged to shout and respond to events on the stage. Villains are booed, heroes are cheered, and when a character is looking for someone who’s in hiding and asks the boys and girls in the audience if they’ve seen the missing person, they shout in unison, “He’s behind you!” And if a villain disagrees with a statement and says, “Oh, no it’s not,” everyone on cue without prompting shouts back, “Oh, yes it is!” Take my word, it’s glorious fun.
Currently playing at ASU Gammage in Tempe until February 17 is the national touring production of Disney’s Aladdin, the musical, and if there’s any show that resembles an American version of a panto, it’s this. Characters constantly play or address the audience, jokes are present-day topical, there’s slapstick, already established songs, magic tricks, performances are broad, and when Princess Jasmine (a thoroughly delightful Lissa deGuzman) stands her ground as a female – “What’s wrong with a woman running the kingdom?” she asks – the audience roar and applaud with just as much vigor as they would a spectacular production number. Plus, the moment the princess insisted she can’t fall in love with just any Tom, Dick, or Hassim who comes her way, someone seated nearby shouted, “You go, girl!”
The tone of panto is established from the outset when the genie (on opening night played by Michael James Scott, but shared by three other performers on subsequent nights throughout its Tempe run) greets the audience declaring that the middle-eastern city of Agrabah has “More glitz and glamour than any other fictional city,” adding, “Even the poor people look fabulous.” And once he’s introduced the setting and the principal characters, he leaves the stage, ready to re-appear later to play his role in the story. “Try not to miss me too much,” he says as he exits.
There are noticeable differences from the film. Unlike Julie Taymor’s animal creations for The Lion King, Aladdin does away with them altogether. Gone is Jasmine’s tiger, replaced by three sassy ladies-in-waiting; there’s no monkey Abu for Aladdin, he’s replaced by three street wise-cracking guys (who were supposed to be in the movie, but cut and replaced by Abu – now they’re back again), while the villain’s snarky parrot Iago is replaced by a rotund human sidekick of the same name. When the evil grand vizier (Jonathan Weir; rich, dark speaking voice) and Iago (Jay Paranada) exchange evil words played out like a comedic double-act at the foot of the stage in front of a painted screen, they’re Abbot and Costello doing panto shtick; Lou Costello as Iago; Bud Abbot as straight man Jafar. “You’re so Machiavellian,” Iago tells Jafar, adding, “Whoever he is.”
Songs that were cut from the film are added, along with some new ones, though it’s the genie’s spectacular Friend Like Me in the first act, with its glitter, theatrical magic, sparkling sets and costumes, and even A Chorus Line styled tap dance, that stops the show. Other songs prove less memorable, though the second act gives us the FM friendly hit A Whole New World; yet even here it’s not the song that draws your focus, it’s Aladdin (Clinton Greenspan) and Jasmine floating around on a magic carpet against a sparkling Disney night sky, complete with shooting stars and a full moon that gets your attention. Rather than hearing the song you’ll be spending most of the time wondering how the scene was done and how come you can’t see the strings.
Among the smoke and light effects – there’s even a Vegas-styled body-disappearing-in-a-box magic trick – there’s the humor. Aladdin is a non-stop, fast-paced gag fest. When the boy asks the genie if he’s from the lamp, the genie replies, “No, I’m from Wakanda!” When one of Aladdin’s colleagues tries to read an announcement from an unrolled parchment and is interrupted, he states, “Do you mind. I’m on a scroll.” There’s even a Tony and Maria moment when Aladdin and Jasmine first meet in the market place as though it was the dance at the gym. Perhaps the height of panto humor comes after Aladdin, pretending to be a prince, makes a grand entrance with his big Act Two production number Prince Ali, then enters the palace and introduces himself. “Yes,” says a sardonic Jafar, “We heard the song.”
The production initially sparked controversy when the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee complained of Disney not hiring actors of Middle Eastern descent instead of the colorblind approach that was employed. In the right show, while cultural casting and the subject of ethnicity in the theatre should be adhered to, this is not that show. Because of its glitz, its glamour, its magic, and its broad, silly humor, more than the other live adaptations of a Disney animated feature, this is really a holiday production for the kids. Kids-at-heart adults should enjoy, but Aladdin is really a party on stage for the young. Streamers are fired into the audience, and when the genie first emerges from the smoke of the magic lamp, he doesn’t acknowledge Aladdin, he turns to the audience with open arms and announces, “Hello everybody!”
When Jafar enters, you may find yourself suppressing the urge to either hiss or cry, “Boo!” And when the genie discovers he was tricked by Aladdin into giving a freebie magic wish and declares aloud, “Oh, no he didn’t!” don’t be surprised if some children nearby shout, “Oh, yes he did!” Aladdin is the most expensive and spectacular looking pantomime you’ll see without it officially being called a panto.
Disney’s Aladdin continues at ASU Gammage in Tempe until February 17
Pictures Courtesy of Deen van Meer