Panto 'Aladdin' at People's Light, even more than you could wish for

Mal Whyte (center) is the Genius of the Ring; from left are Justin Jain as Aladdin, Andrew Kane as Morris the Mantis, and Brad DePlanche as Manny the Monkey.
Mal Whyte (center) is the Genius of the Ring; from left are Justin Jain as Aladdin, Andrew Kane as Morris the Mantis, and Brad DePlanche as Manny the Monkey. (MARK GARVIN)
Posted: November 21, 2012

In the pantheon of People's Light and Theatre pantos, Cinderella, the 2009 Barrymore Awards-sweeping vaudevillian adaptation, stands as a Jupiter of the form. While the panto, a British holiday-time descendant of commedia dell'arte, includes standard conventions (candy-tossing, drag-wearing, audience participation), the 2009 production was seriously unconventional - innovative, even. So, let's say this year's Aladdin is People's Light's Juno.

The company's ninth panto again pairs composer/lyricist Michael Ogborn with director Peter Pryor, who's also responsible, with Samantha Bellomo, for Aladdin's book, which takes cues from the traditional tale, its Disney cousin, Shakespeare, and Rudolph Valentino, among other influences.

This winning production team also includes returning videographer Jorge Cousineau, with a hilarious tribute to silent-film melodrama set aboard a flying carpet, and costumer Rosemarie McKelvey, with sight gags such as a dormer-windowed gown for Widow Twankey (played by Mark Lazar, People's Light's perennial cross-dressing Dame) that's both literally and figuratively roomy.

While it's great to see old favorites return - Lazar, Justin Jain as Aladdin, and Andrew Kane as Aladdin's pal Morris the Mantis (whose understandable fear of romance gets one of the show's biggest laughs) - this year's newcomers bring the real magic. Meera Mohan as Princess Mai Tai looks like Disney's Jasmine but sings with gorgeous force and clarity in all three dimensions. Ed Swidey's evil, campy Fu, corrupt head of his own carny boardwalk empire and team of ninjas, conducts the audience response like a maestro, egging on a steady stream of boos and hisses - and I'm talking a whole crowd of grownups outshouting their kids. And it's some accomplishment to give gravitas to a shirtless lamp genie clad in gold lamé harem pants, so kudos to Larry Grant Malvern for doing it well, and looking great besides.

Ryan Touhey's hard-working musical direction brings out the best in this cast, whether they're going for laughs or soaring solos.

Aladdin is one show for which People's Light could easily cut its peppermint budget and forget handing out candy. The excitement on this stage beats a sugar rush any day.


Aladdin

Through Jan. 6 at People's Light and Theatre Company, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern. Tickets: $35 to $45. Information: 610-644-3500 or www.PeoplesLight.org.


Follow Wendy Rosenfield on Twitter at #philastage. Read her reviews at www.philly.com/phillystage.

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