“Hey, man. Why’d you stop?”
Ah, yes, the million dollar question. It’s posed by the still legendary Ben Vereen who has just twirled onstage for his first entrance in the Lythgoe Family Panto production of “Aladdin and his Winter Wish.” Playing, naturally, the Genie of Aladdin’s lamp, Vereen informs his new young master that “we’ve got magic to do!” prompting Music Director Michael Orland to hit the first couple of bars of that very opening tune from “Pippin” that helped make Vereen, well, Ben Vereen. Then the music breaks off.
This being the story of “Aladdin,” there are indeed riches to be discovered, identities to be transformed, carpets to ride, evil sorcerers to be foiled. There is magic to do… just not grown-up magic.
Hey, Mr. Orland, and for that matter, director Bonnie Lythgoe…why did you stop? Why not let Ben Vereen show us if he’s still got the chops to blow the roof and tear the sidings off his signature number? How about a bone for those of us who might enjoy watching a bit of musical theater iconography in the flesh?
Never mind. I know the answer. Because Ben Vereen – who is 67 - and his fellow company members will have to work not one, not two, but three performances of “Winter Wish” each on Saturday and Sunday.
Because “Aladdin and his Winter Wish” is already a dangerously long two hours; because Vereen is needed to duet with teen star Jordan Fisher (as Aladdin) on the Travie McCoy song “Billionaire” and then to carry the first act closer “Fantasy.” Yep, Earth Wind and Fire’s “Fantasy.” Vereen is not employed, thank whatever gods are in existence, either on One Direction’s “What Makes you Beautiful” (that’s Aladdin’s number) for Call me Maybe (sung by Ashley Argota's Princess Yasimin and her attendants).
If you’re wondering what in the name of Bagroba, Carly Rae Jepsen, Bruno Mars and a whole bunch of bad and semi topical puns are doing in the sands of ancient Arabia, remember that this is Panto, a British holiday tradition that grafts present day sensibilities onto fairy tales to assemble a kind of all are welcome hybrid. The Lythgoe family – director Bonnie, writer Kris and producer and casting director Becky Baeling-Lythgoe – give the celebrity headliners (and those audience members over the age of 25) their moments in the sun, but if the music selection, merchandising and "come one, come all!" spirit of the performance are any indication, the younger set is the target. Be warned: if you attend, you may be surrounded by mothers feeding babies, fathers unwrapping crinkly food, kids under 6 waving swords that not only light up and glow in the ark but that make a metal on metal sound when they’re brandished.
Only imagine watching the story of “Aladdin” amidst that kind of cacophony. Imagine performing the story of “Aladdin” amidst that kind of cacophony.
But the actors – pros that they are – have their marching orders and soldier lustily forward. Mostly. Bruce Vilanch, as Aladdin’s Mother, Widow Twankey, sports some crazy over-the-top outfits (Twankey runs the Laundromat affording endless sartorial possibilities), vamps and does the sex starved old bag routine as to the manner born. Richard Karn (the Sultan) was a bit shaky with his lines, but after years as a TV straght man to Tim Allen on "Home Improvement," this is an easy role. Having no difficulty is Josh Adamson, playing the evil sorcerer whom the audience is instructed to boo the stuffing out of every time he hits the stage. Adamson leers and glowers and banters, clearly having a high old time of the proceedings.
The same can not, alas, be said of Ben Vereen who occasionally looks like he's on autopilot. Maybe it’s the minimal amount of actual stage time, the fact that he comes in an hour into “Winter Wish” or his knowledge that a show like this can’t really be hijacked unless you’ve got a Disney Channel or Nick pedigree. Or perhaps we need to catch him on a single-show night.
As previously noted, “Aladdin” is a tale of magic and Technical/Design Director Chris Wood and Magic Director Ed Alonzo oblige with some decent special effects including a magic carpet ride. Little Man the miniature horse makes an appearance and audience golden ticket holders get in on the on-stage action during a pre-finale sing-along. In addition, younger audiences should take some delight in seeing the work of Spencer Lift’s dancers (broken into two teams) many of whom are the same age as they are.
There is no more noble pursuit than grooming the next generation of theater-goers. Would that they could be entranced even if the light up swords are left in the car. That – and a Ben Vereen solo from “Pippin” – is this reviewer’s winter wish.
"Aladdin's Winter Wish" continues 3 and 7 p.m. Thur.-Fri., 11 a.m., 3 and 7 p.m. Sat., 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Sun.; through Dec. 29 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. $25-$75. (626) 356-7529, www.pasadenaplayhouse.org.