If you’ve felt a near-seismic eye rolling ripple through Middle Tennessee, oft accompanied by a low, roaring groan, in the evenings since last weekend, rest assured that the twin phenomena are neither harmful nor long-lasting. Usually, the mention of rolling eyes and groans in a theatre review would mean that the show on the boards is a real stinker. Or, as this show would put it, “Sugly” – a portmanteau of Smelly and Ugly. While there are certainly prettier shows out there, if you’re in the market for bad dad jokes accompanied by a “Ba-dum-CHING!” on the trap set, hie thineself to TPAC’s Polk Theatre with all haste, for Aladdin and His Winter Wish will have you laughing at the utterly absurd, peculiarly English humor that is Panto.
Chances are you don’t have the faintest idea what Panto is. In short, it’s a fairy tale that has been moderately bastardized. In fact, it’s a virtual theatrical turducken of star actors, bad jokes, pop songs, a smidgeon of cross dressing, visual gags, and a thin veneer of Christmas spirit all lobbed into a fairy tale picture frame. What you’re left with this year is a rip-snorting good time with more inside jokes than you can count.
Now, a warning… (in my best Meryl Streep in Death Becomes Her impression, “NOW, a warning?”): Do not enter the Polk Theatre expecting Disney’s Aladdin. If you are, you’re going to be disappointed and, folks, it’d be cheaper to pop in the Blu Ray and sing a couple Christmas songs throughout the evening. Besides, Father Disney does not take kindly to folks stepping on its creative toes. There will be only a sideways mention that Disney exists and it’s one of the night’s best jokes.
Leading the show as Aladdin is television and stage star Damon J. Gillespie, a veteran of Disney’s Broadway mounting of their Aladdin musical. As his Princess is Nickelodeon starlet Kira Kosarin, known for her work on The Thundermans. They’re a sweet couple with evident chemistry. Not that it’s deeply necessary. This is a fairytale and the ending is rather a foregone conclusion.
As the Sultan, Home Improvement and Family Feud legend Richard Karn struts his stuff admirably, though he should have a big song and dance number. There’s more than enough to go around. As resident baddie, Josh Adamson’s Abanazar is hammier and cheesier than a good croque monsieur. If you go, please boo him loudly, as befits the panto villain. He’ll just chew on the scenery and tell a few more really terrible jokes and you’ll thank him for it.
The comic relief comes in the forms of Aladdin’s brother Wishee Washee (a smashing Jonathan Meza), Bruce Vilanch as the Widow Twankey (mother to both Aladdin and Wishee), and Mykal Kilgore’s superb Genie. Meza’s Wishee keeps the show moving as narrator and sometimes village idiot and his physical comedy game is tip-top. Vilanch’s Widow Twankey is the traditional Panto Dame, a male star whose female character is exaggerated in about every way possible. But it’s not the widow’s T&A game that wows as much as the Tease-it-to-Jesus bouffant wig that would make Marge Simpson and the B-52’s a little envious.
But then there’s the Genie and… Geezus Christmas… Mykal Kilgore is a staggering talent. The man has more pipes than a water plant, kids. A veteran of Broadway’s The Book of Mormon and Hair as well as NBC’s recent live mounting of Jesus Christ Superstar, Kilgore is the real real. Seriously, I’ve seen Disney’s Aladdin onstage. Dear Disney Theatrical and Thomas Schumacher: CALL HIM. This man should be your Genie, too. The voice… my god… I refuse to spoil any of the numbers he throws into the rafters, but they’re all incredible.
The set is simple (and in desperate need of a good steaming to get out the wrinkles), but it’s deeply effective. Magic Carpet? You betcha. The costumes don’t really break any new ground for the majority of the company, but Bruce Vilanch’s Widow Twankey gets some wonderfully weird togs to strut around in.
If you’re expecting Shakespeare, please just don’t. If you yearn for the melodies of Rodgers and Hammerstein… check your batteries, Alma. But if you want a groaning good time that will leave you with a goofy smile on your face, Aladdin and His Winter Wish will probably be the perfect holiday kick-off for you.
Aladdin and His Winter Wish continues through Sunday, December 22 at TPAC’s Polk Theatre. Tickets are available at TPAC’s website and box office.