At last, just in time for the holidays, comes the answer to the burning question that bubbles up this and every Christmas among the musicals-obsessed: Who could possibly inherit the mantle of Carol Channing in “Hello, Dolly”? Now we have the unlikely answer: As the Widow Twankey in the Old Vic’s unruly, overlong and under-rehearsed Christmas pantomime “Aladdin,” a gloriously game Ian McKellen suggests himself as a natural Dolly, an Anglicized Edna Everage and even a possible Edna Turnblad in “Hairspray.”
Prancing about the Vic’s once-hallowed stage telling hoary jokes in an array of increasingly outlandish costumes, with wigs to match, the outre McKellen is a one-man party all his own, even when the festivities around him feel mighty forced.
The grin-and-bear-it nature of the proceedings may matter less to English auds, doubtless every bit as weaned on the panto tradition as, by all accounts, was Sir Ian himself. After all, rare is the British child who isn’t introduced to the theater via the knockabout knees-up that is the seasonal panto: a roisterous amalgam of audience participation, off-color innuendo (“Your front porch could do with a good lick”) and good-natured transvestitism that, presumably, requires more discipline than one might think to deliver the goods.
By now I’ve lived in London long enough to get the panto ritual, all the while savoring the array of insider-related jibes that here rope in Trevor Nunn, Peter Hall, Matthew Bourne and, heavens above, even Fiona Shaw. And it’s with that in mind that Sean Mathias’ production –tweaked at the eleventh hour, according to industry scuttlebutt, by panto veteran Roy Hudd (“The Solid Gold Cadillac”) — seems to be straining for a bonhomie that should be the British stage’s birthright. Nor can it have helped that the production opened to the press at only the third performance; this is one venture where interested spectators are advised to wait until well into the run.
The story of Aladdin and His Wonderful (some say Magic) Lamp is, of course, as old as the hills, dating back in theater terms to its 1788 stage premiere at Covent Garden. Since then, “Aladdin” has joined such perennials as “Jack and the Beanstalk,” “Puss in Boots” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” among many others, as folkloric favorites that guarantee an audience, delighting kids with the licensed anarchy on offer (all that shouting back at the stage!) while tickling their parents with some scarcely veiled salaciousness.
“Aladdin” obsessives this season can choose between this version, with its tony cast including Maureen Lipman and Roger Allam (London’s acclaimed Willy Brandt in “Democracy”), and what one assumes to be a slightly rougher version of the same tale at the Hackney Empire in East London, starring that musical theater butterball Clive Rowe as the washerwoman Twankey.
But it’s hard to imagine a grander version of slumming it than McKellen in full faux-grandiose sail here. Making his/her appearance “fresh from the Peking sales,” McKellen’s Twankey has barely flounced into view before an actor not exactly known for his musical pipes is growling snatches of “I Feel Pretty” and “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” followed by a smiling caveat to the audience: “Don’t encourage me.” (Oh, why not?)
McKellen gives off the complicitous glee of a kid who has been caught with a notably well-exercised thigh in the candy box, his mock-Shakespearean segues (“Whence that loud knocking within?”) giving way neatly to topical jokes skewering Britain’s just-deposed home secretary David Blunkett alongside, most mercilessly, George W. Bush and Tony Blair.
None of the other players, as yet, make much of an impression against the witty, bright backdrops of designer John Napier, which pay homage to Saul Steinberg’s famous New Yorker cartoon by way, the program tells us, of someone named Flo Perry. Maureen Lipman’s mustachioed Dim Sum appears unusually becalmed, and Sam Kelly’s Emperor seems surprisingly absent from proceedings after his scene-stealing work this summer in the National’s “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” (It’s Kelly, on the other hand, who tips us off to the show’s inordinate length, remarking late in act one, “The last rickshaw’s at 12.”)
The title role, unusually, has been cast with a man (likable Scottish actor Joe McFadden) as opposed to the usual cross-dressing, leggy woman, and his opposite number, Cat Simmons’ Princess, has the show’s prettiest voice.
But not even the premiere of a new song by Elton John and Lee Hall, the composer/lyricist team behind the upcoming “Billy Elliot — The Musical” (co-produced by Old Vic Prods.), can steal the comic thunder of McKellen at his most majestically impish. Looking for all the world like Dustin Hoffman in “Tootsie,” this supremely upstanding of classicists isn’t the first person you’d imagine high-kicking his way to the finale of “Broadway Baby,” from “Follies.”
But then, “Aladdin” can honestly be said to show off McKellen as we’ve never seen him: This theatrical Christmas, he’s the season’s brightest bauble.