No it’s not Tangled. It’s TWISTED. Yes, it’s a musical but it’s based loosely on WICKED. Yes, it’s a prequel to Aladdin but it’s also a parody on Disney animations AND the multi-million dollar war between Pixar and ‘the magic kingdom’.
If that’s not enough, it also boasts a liberal smattering of characters from not just your childhood Disney favourites (think of the TV show Once Upon a Time) but also The Shining and Casablanca.
It’s a lot to pack into two hours but the ambitious team at Dionysos Productions give the work every ounce of enthusiasm and commitment they possess. The result is a light-hearted smorgasbord of bawdy jokes, rippling pastiche and plenty of Disney parodies to keep fans entertained.
At its core TWISTED does have a very clear central character: the Grand Vizier Ja’far. Not unlike the Wicked Witch of the West, he too has a story to share and Starkid Productions created this work to present their unrivaled commitment to deconstructing one of the world’s favourite Disney films: Aladdin.
As a youthful, idealistic servant of the people, Ja’far is an advocate of kindness, tolerance and equality; he is unequivocally loved by all. Life seems to have been good to him, the beautiful Scheherazade becomes his wife and he is given the opportunity to make change at a macro level by joining the court as an assistant to Grand Vizier.
Soon after, however, he loses his beloved to the lecherous desires of the Sultan and discovers the corruption of those who wield power. As his illusions about those in leadership begin to disintegrate he realises that his ambitions for change will be thwarted at every turn. The premise is the same as WICKED and the nod is not even that subtle, as Ja’far enters with a copy of the script in his arm – but as a narrative it just isn’t enough.
Ja’far is the most well-developed character but only in contrast to the rather plastic versions of the originals who surround him. Jasmine is a naïve self-centred sheltered princess (intentionally so but it does get bland very quickly) and the young cocky Aladdin with big dreams is reduced to a self-aggrandizing nympho whose main aim is to get a woman to ‘take her clothes off’.
Similarly, the Sultan is a sexually dysfunctional reactive fool easily swayed and the majority of the population of this land trade in polarities as easily as they do in women. Prince Achmed (only a minor character in the original film) and Scheherazade are marginally better but the main issue with the entire narrative is that it is superficial.
Yes, that is the whole point, but pointing out flaws (“Why is everyone in the kingdom white?” the ensemble sing: yes really, why??) doesn’t make them disappear.
This isn’t a Bart Baker parody. This isn’t an epic rap battle either. It’s more like a You-tube version of a half-baked attempt to deconstruct a Disney movie. The problem (and as with Disney films in general this rarely gets as much press as it should) is that the premise of the original film is laced with dubious cultural appropriations. A film, albeit an animation (so therefore it’s okay – really??) that trades in stereotypes of concubines, slavery, exotic ‘others’ is perhaps not the best foundation to generate a parody. Especially one in which women are dressed in voluptuous outfits; character names are spelt with Anglicized versions and far away from the Middle East it’s okay to perpetuate rather lazy and factually incorrect notions of other peoples’ culture.
It’s neither smart nor satisfying.
Considering the population demographics of Auckland would a Mulan version be playing in one of our best known independent theatres, let alone be considered an appropriate choice for production? Probably not. So why Aladdin?
One of the other obvious issues is that the genres are blurred in TWISTED. It is exactly that, twisted in and upon itself; parody masquerading as musical theatre while simultaneously reaching for a satirical glossiness. The creatives and cast give a hugely compelling performance and it is impossible to fault the sheer passion and energy of the team.
Brady Peeti does exceptionally well as the morally anguished Ja’far and Lana MacFarlane and Edwin Beats as Scheherazade and Prince Achmed are both strong leads. Despite his bawdy and singular fixation on sex it’s impossible not to like Hadley Taylor’s impersonation of this raunchy street rat and although Princess Jasmine’s character comes to the party a bit late Kate Castle gives a genuine sweetness to a character that mostly comes across as utterly delusional.
In addition, Dale Henderson’s lighting design works perfectly for the rapidly changing scenes and the large team who put together the costumes (Nikola Spedding, Marlise Hughes, Toni Henderson, Matthew Roderick, Tina Huges) have remained faithful to the original Disney version. The choreography is limited, admittedly, by space but Naomi Cohen’s routines while (in some ways) appropriately clichéd, show little innovation. With no set, an excellent if invisible band led by musical director and conductor Andy Manning, Adam Spedding and his team have brought to life Starkid Productions’ vision of TWISTED to audiences in Auckland.
Considering the limitations of the actual script the company gets full marks for passion and garnering together a cast of potent talent.
This will undoubtedly be a deliriously hilarious night for many and potentially the perfect night for
a dose nostalgic entertainment – but the question is, at whose expense?