The musical theater genre known as Panto may have been born in the United Kingdom, but with Lythgoe Family Productions now giving Los Angeles audiences their fourth annual December taste of it with this year’s Aladdin And His Winter Wish, this distinctively English form of musical entertainment has clearly found its home away from home in sunny Southern California, this year for the second time at the Pasadena Playhouse.

Image00004 As any Brit will tell you, panto has absolutely nothing to do with what we Americans think of as pantomime, but is instead an amalgam of a familiar children’s tale, English Music Hall, pop culture references, audience participation, and enough double entendre humor to make the show as enjoyable for adults as it is for kids.

Like countless pantos before it, Aladdin And His Winter Wish features all of the above, plus a “Panto Dame” (i.e. a comedian in drag), a sidekick who talks to the audience and insures their active, vocal participation, a slew of countless contemporary references and bawdy jokes, and magic effects and transformations galore.

Image00005 Teen Disney heartthrob Jordan Fisher is street urchin Aladdin and web series star Ben Giroux his brother Wishee, whose larger-than-life mother Widow Twankey (actor-comedy writer Bruce Vilanch) runs the local Laundromat in their part of Arabia and has recently begun looking for that special someone through speed dating. “Unfortunately they don’t hang around very long,” she tells us, then reveals, “I used to be a model for Victoria’s Original Secret. Not Twiggy. Twankey.”

Aladdin may be our hero, but it’s Wishee Washee who’s our guide to panto-land, instructing us to respond to his “Hiya Pasadena” with a unision “Hiya Wishee!” whenever we see him, and to boo villain Abanazar (musical theater star Josh Adamson) upon his every entrance. As for how Wishee Washee got his name, our MC explains, “I used to be indecisive, but now I’m not really sure.”

Meanwhile, over at the palace, the beautiful Princess Yasmin (Nickelodeon’s Ashley Argota) longs for once to visit the local baths without guards Mohammad Al Roker and Abdul Al Michaels (Marc Spaulding and Louis A. Williams, Jr.) in tow. When Yasmin somehow manages to escape the palace, who should she run across but our handsome hero, who realizes to his astonishment that the princess looks exactly like the girl he dreamt about last night. Unfortunately, the palace guards soon arrive to rescue her and send the “street rat” packing.

In order to marry the daughter of the Sultan (Richard Karn of Home Improvement/Family Feud fame), Aladdin must first become a prince, an impossibility that might just become possible thanks to the arrival of his uncle Abanazar, who promises Aladdin “riches beyond your wildest dreams” if only he acts as sidekick on his uncle’s latest mission.

Image00001 What we in the audience already know, and what Aladdin will soon find out, is that Abanazar is no family relation at all, but a boo-worthy villain with a wicked plan to rule the world … if only he can find the genie to make his wish come true. The key to his success in this venture just happens to be Aladdin, since for some reason only the pure-hearted youth can enter the cave where the genie’s lamp is hidden.

Once inside the cave, Aladdin spots the lamp almost at once, the casual act of a rub or two unleashing (you guessed it) Genie (Broadway legend Ben Vereen), and though Aladdin makes the wrong choice when Genie plays Let’s Make A Deal with his new master, Aladdin’s wish to become a wealthy Prince does indeed become reality. As for his wish to marry Yasmin, it remains for Aladdin to persuade the Sultan to let him wed his beautiful daughter, something he’d better do before Abanazar’s powers of hypnosis make him the fiancé of choice.

But first, intermission.

Image 00002 It wouldn’t be panto without pop, and Aladdin And His Winter Wish is filled with one Top Ten hit after another, beginning with a great big Bollywood production number to the Slumdog Millionaire hit “Jai Ho,” the first of several dance sequences choreographed by So You Think You Can Dance whiz Spencer Liff. Vilanch’s Widow Twankey rocks out to “I’m Too Sexy” and “Old Time Rock And Roll,” quipping “Two numbers in a row! Carrie Underwood doesn’t work that hard!” Fisher’s Aladdin vows that nothing is going to “Break My Stride,” gets all ballady with the ‘50s/‘60s hit “You Don’t Know Me,” duets “Makes You Beautiful” with Giroux’s Wishee Washee, rocks out with One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful,” and duets Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” while flying above the stage on a magic carpet with Argota’s Yasmin by his side. (Yes, indeed, the romantic twosome do actually take a magic carpet ride in one of the panto’s several “How do they do that?” moments.)

Other song highlights include Vareen’s “Fantasy,” Fisher and Vareen’s “Billionaire,” Adamson’s “Viva La Vida,” Fisher and Argota’s “Walking on Sunshine,” and the entire ensemble’s “Treasure,” and if Earth, Wind, & Fire, Travie McCoy, Coldplay, Bruno Mars, and Katrina And The Waves seem a bit all over the musical (and decade) spectrum, welcome to the world of panto, a world no one knows better than the Lythgoe family, as writer Kris Lythgoe and director Bonnie Lythgoe make abundantly clear. (Mark Edgar Stephens is assistant director.)

There are plenty of contemporary pop references; Facebook, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Instagram, and the GPS all get their mention. There’s a disappearing princess magic trick that will have you wide-mouthed in wonder. There’s plenty of fourth wall-breaking, so be prepared to participate actively and vocally, and the louder the volume the better. Some children may actually find themselves invited up on stage. Heck, there’s even a real, live pony in the show (played by Little Man)!

Ben[1] It’s an honest-to-goodness treat to see the legendary Vereen as the Genie (prompting requisite Pippin mentions). Karn has great fun as the Sultan (and references both of his TV hits). Adamson chews the scenery quite deliciously, Giroux is a delightful jokester as Wishee Washee, and Argota belts to the rafters as Yasmin. Best of all are Momma Vilanch, milking every one of her Widow Twankey moments, and the positively irresistible Fisher, not only a terrific singer but a triple-threat with real acting chops.

Providing energetic support are the production’s six Spencer Liff Dancers. Lauren Decierdo and Morgan Larson are Yasmin’s vivacious handmaidens, while Vanessa Nichole makes for a sexy, saucy Slave Of The Ring (the next best thing to a genie, albeit with fewer powers). Spaulding, Williams, and understudy Austin Spacy are talented dancers as well.

And speaking of dancing, they don’t come any more amazing in small packages than “Purple Team” child stars Kade Pait, Alyssa Jose, Rachael Anderson, Bailey Sok, Tatiana McQuay, Isaiah Morgan, and Caitlyn Leone, who alternate performances with “Gold Team” Matt Moseley, Sierra Neudeck, Daisy Stoneman, Tessa Bella, Joshua Guerrero, Ruby Rose Turner, and Nadia Turner.

Providing accomplished musical direction and arrangements and conducting the Michael Orland Band is none other than American Idol’s Michael Orland on keyboards, joined by Brian Boyce on percussion and assistant musical director Keith Harrison on 2nd keyboards.

Image00003 Aladdin And His Winter Wish looks sensational with its Disneyesque sets (by Ablemarie Productions, who also designed the Technicolor costumes) and Chris Wilcox’s expert lighting, and sound designer Doug Newell makes the whole shebang sound just as sensational. Magic designer Ed Alonzo gets his own ovation for several amazing feats of wizardry.

Aladdin And His Winter Wish is produced by The Lythgoes. Jill Gold is stage manager and Kristen Hammack company manager. Chris Wood is technical and design director for Lythgoe Family Productions. Casting is by Lythgoe Family Productions and Becky Baeling-Lythgoe.

As in pantos past, adults are reminded to leave all grown-up cynicism and sophistication at the door, let loose that inner child, and cheer and boo to your heart’s delight. And if you find yourself not acting your age as shout out warnings to the hero of impending danger, rest assured, you won’t be the only one not acting his or her age—and loving every second of it.

Panto At The Playhouse, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 South El Molino Ave., Pasadena.

–Steven Stanley
December 11, 2013
Photos: Clarence Alford

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