Funny on the fly

Funny on the fly

Bruce Vilanch steals the show in Pasadena Playhouse’s “Aladdin and His Winter Wish”

By Carl Kozlowski 12/12/2013

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Do old-fashioned displays have you yearning for something original to do with the family this Christmas?

The Pasadena Playhouse has the answer, presenting “Aladdin and His Winter Wish,” a musical comedy featuring over-the-top characters and performances, memorably goofy songs and a playbill that will have audiences looking twice.

“Aladdin” features Broadway legend Ben Vereen and Richard Karn of the former smash ABC sitcom “Home Improvement,” as well as popular teen actors Jordan Fisher and Ashley Argota. 

But perhaps its biggest draw comes from its most colorful casting choice: comedy writer-actor Bruce Vilanch in the cross-dressing role of Aladdin’s mother, Widow Twankey. 

Directed by Bonnie Lythgoe and choreographed by Spencer Liff, the creative forces behind the hit Fox series “So You Think You Can Dance,” the highly inventive team also includes musical supervisor Michael Armond of “American Idol” fame.

Vilanch could barely contain his excitement with the production in a recent interview with the Pasadena Weekly. 

“I wanted to do this show because it’s from the Lythgoe family, and they’re legends in British entertainment, and you can’t beat British comedy styles,” says Vilanch. “It’s panto, which is rooted in the word pantomime, but actually this form doesn’t mime. It’s music and comedy and bad puns and over-the-top guest actors like myself and Ben Vereen.”

Last year, the Playhouse produced its first Christmas “panto” performance, “A Snow White Christmas,” starring Charlene Tilton and Neil Patrick Harris.

“It’s great doing it because you get to try so many forms of entertainment and meet so many people,” Vilanch continues. “I got one of my first breaks writing for a Ben Vereen variety show, so that was a treat when he joined the cast.” 

The 65-year-old native New Yorker originally planned to be an entertainment reporter. He wrote features for the Chicago Tribune and got to know as many celebrities as possible through that position. Vilanch developed a particularly strong friendship with Bette Midler, who invited him to write material for her 1974 Broadway show “Clams on the Half Shell,” and he was hooked. 

Moving to Los Angeles soon after that to work full time as a comedy writer and actor, Vilanch quickly gained a reputation for writing sharp jokes on the fly. Over the years, he has won six writing Emmys. On “The Hollywood Squares,” Vilanch was not only the head writer, but also the center square.

Most notably, Vilanch writes jokes for award shows, and has been the head writer for the Oscars since 2000. He also writes for the Tonys, Grammys and Emmys, but the night that cemented his reputation as the king of fast-thinking jokes was the 1992 Oscar ceremony, when he managed to bang out a hilarious string of comments for host Billy Crystal riffing off 73-year-old Oscar winner Jack Palance doing one-armed pushups on stage. 

“There are four of us writing the actual show and you end up writing and rewriting so many things at the same time, so I do a little of everything,” says Vilanch. “But it’s the greatest show on Earth. Did anybody get into football not to play in the Super Bowl? Does anybody get into show business not to do the biggest show in the world?”

Yet, despite the satisfaction that his writing career has brought, Vilanch still wishes he could act more. His unique look has made it difficult for him to play a wide range of roles, but his cross-dressing turn in “Aladdin” will mark a follow-up to his highly successful run as Edna Turnblad, an obese housewife and mom featured in the stage musical version of “Hairspray.” He spent a year on Broadway in the role, as well as a year on the national tour. 

“Well, I spent two years playing a woman on Broadway in ‘Hairspray,’ so I was almost never out of support hose, which are just evil,” he jokes. “So now I’m back in the hose, but at least I’m used to them this time around. It’s wonderful family entertainment, but its exhausting, because we’ll do up to three shows a day and they’re full two hour shows.

“I would love to act more, but I got so well known for Hairspray that it limits people’s perceptions of what I can do and makes it hard to do anything other than dress as a woman,” he concludes. “I enjoy writing jokes too and I’ll never stop, so things are fine, but it would help if people thought more outside the box when casting though.”

“Aladdin and His Winter Wish” runs Wednesday through Dec. 29 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 34 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tickets are $34 to $75. Call (626) 356-7529 or visit pasadenaplayhouse.org. 

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