A Whole New Story [by James Wenley]
I’ve always liked Jafar. His sleek robes, his slimy voice, his talking pet parrot. This might be part of the reason that it wasn’t the VHS of Aladdin, but its direct-to-video sequel Return of Jafar, that was played to destruction in childhood. Jafar is a straight up badass, one of Disney’s greatest villains.
In telling “the untold story of a Royal Vizier”, Twisted is a musical parody of both Aladdin, and the 2000s revisionist phenomena to revisit classic villains and turn them into goodies (which arguably reached its nadir with Disney’s own Maleficent). In an opening sequence ripped not from Aladdin, but Beauty and the Beast, Ja’far (Brady Peeti) enters reading Wicked by Gregory Maguire. So that deals with that: yes, this is exactly like Wicked, now sit back and enjoy.
So now Ja’far is an ethical crusader and idealistic reformer, the one good man in a corrupt political system, the Commissioner Gordon of Agrabah. And as John Key knows, when you’re in charge, you get blamed for all sorts of things that go wrong. “Fuck you Ja’far” is the common refrain.
Meanwhile Princess Jasmine (Kate Castle) is a naïve monster of privilege (inequality could be solved if the poor were given slaves too), and Aladdin (Hadley Taylor) is – what else – a playboy and opportunist trying to sleep his way through the kingdom. The ‘Whole New World’ moment turns into a duet where Aladdin implores the princess to “take off your clothes”.
And so it goes. Already you should know that prerequisites for this include a love of Disney, Wicked, and let’s throw in South Park. There’s a certain delight to be had in imagining these Disney characters as potty-mouths, but if it was just to coast along on swears and outrageous one-liners – which it did seem to be doing early on – there wouldn’t be much to recommend.
However, Twisted digs deeper to find some heart. There’s a love story for the vizier that isn’t played for laughs, and the show’s ending is straight out of the Disney/Wicked playbook. From Team Starkid (A Very Potter Musical), the score surpasses parody ambitions and stands alone. The cast, without the assistance of mics, sound great too.
In a nod to Starkid, the set consists only of curtains which hides the 10 member band led by Musical Director Andy Manning (10! – In the Basement!). It’s the costumes where the money has clearly gone – and they are gorgeous. Jasmine’s especially looks like the cartoon come to life. The nine-strong ensemble go through an incredible array of costume changes (monkeys/henchmen/other Disney cameos). While they each get their moments to shine, special mention to Devon Webb, Naomi Cohen, and Edwin Beat’s luxuriant villain-twirling moustache, who make every moment count. Actually Edwin Beat is the star player here, responsible for many of the belly laughs.
Through Jasmine there’s some useful commentary about the princess-ideology that Disney peddles, however a subplot about the threat of Pixar and the loss of “2D” falls entirely flat.
Then there are issues that have been raised about Disney imperialism and cultural appropriation, which imply that everyone who enjoys this show is wrong. Yes, Aladdin is problematic, but does this mean it should forever be off-limits? It’s a pervasive western cultural artefact, so yes, let’s look at it. With Twisted we are at further remove – we are in an alternative Disney-land, subverting the fantasy that Disney promotes. The values of these films absolutely should be parodied, though at times the makers of Twisted could be a little more intelligent about there’s.
Under director Adam Spedding Twisted is rough around the edges, and squashed to fit The Basement, but the cast’s singing chops, Naomi Cohen’s witty choreography, and those costumes, make for a magic carpet ride of supremely entertaining satire and nostalgia. Twisted is the culmination of Dionysos’s Hotspot cabaret nights at The Basement, and there is some excellent talent on display. That the show sold out prior to opening attests to their following and demand for this genre. More please.
So this one is for you 90’s Disney Kids, geek out. If you’ve got your ticket: sight-lines are terrible, queue up early to get a good seat. If you don’t: well, if you are curious about what this is all about, Starkid have their original 2013 Chicago production on YouTube for free. Comparing that production, the Aucklanders hold their own very well indeed.
Most of all, the show makes me want to watch Aladdin again, and revisit the original Jafar. Disney marathon anyone?
Twisted is presented by Dionysos and plays at The Basement until 14 Nov. Details see The Basement.