Kris Lythgoe talks panto, bringing families together for ‘Aladdin and His Winter Wish’ Dec. 12-22

Aladdin and Jasmine on the magic carpet

Magic carpet ride? Check. Wish-granting Genie? Check. Evil sorcerer? Check.

Aladdin and His Winter Wish, which comes to TPAC’s Polk Theater Dec. 12-22, may seem to check all the boxes of the children’s classic we all know and love.

But this is not that same cookie-cutter story about a street rat’s rise to royalty — this is panto, baby.

What is panto, you ask?

As the show’s producer and brainchild behind Lythgoe Family Give Kids Panto Kris Lythgoe puts it, “panto is just a part of life in the UK.”

Kris, Bonnie, Nigel and Becky Lythgoe

Kris, Bonnie, Nigel and Becky Lythgoe.

“Every city, every town, every village does an amateur and a professional panto every holiday. So, you have to be careful which one you go to,” Lythgoe joked. “Everybody over there grows up from like 2-years-old going to the theatre. Panto’s sort of a vehicle that introduces kids to live theater for the first time.”

Known for their creativity and involvement in television hits American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance, the Lythgoe family has prided themselves in bringing the British panto tradition across the pond. For the past decade, Lythgoe Family Give Kids Panto has been offering affordable and interactive theater to families across America.

Panto comes from the formal word pantomime — a type of musical comedy stage production designed for family entertainment. The British panto tradition dates back 350 years when townspeople would put on a show as a Christmas present for the kids in their village. These bawdy, risque musical productions would always have huge comedic twists and were interactive by nature.

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‘Aladdin and His Winter Wish’ coming to TPAC Dec. 12-22.

“There’s an element to British comedy that goes way too innuendo-heavy and over the top,” Lythgoe continued. “So, we sort of pulled that out and made it more about family. It’s really something you can finally sit around the dinner table and talk about, that shared experience that families just don’t get anymore.”

Basically, the age-old fairy tale is given a modern twist with comedy, dance and contemporary songs interwoven into the script — from Ray Charles to Bruno Mars. But Aladdin and His Winter Wish isn’t just for kids. Each Lythgoe Family Give Kids Panto production is modernized with topical scripts for parents, too.

“As parents, we all take our kids to things they love much more than we do, and we sort of sit there and twiddle our thumbs,” Lythgoe said. “That’s why we make it relatable to adults and even grandparents with music and humor that they will appreciate.”

Lythgoe Family Give Kids Pantos are also localized for each city it performs in with fourth wall-breaking, regional references. From Broadway bars and pedal taverns, to bachelorette parties and Bird scooters, everything Nashville is fair game.

“We write the script about the city,” Lythgoe said, “so you’ll see there’s a lot of jokes and colloquialisms about the area around Nashville.”

Based on the Grimm fairy tale,the story follows Aladdin, who meets and falls in love with the Princess with the help of his magical Genie. When she is taken by the evil magician Abanazar, Aladdin must implore the help of his hopeless brother Wishee Washee to defeat the evil magician and make all of his wishes come true.

Richard Karn (left) and Josh Adamson (right) in 'Aladdin and His Winter Wish

Richard Karn (left) and Josh Adamson (right) in ‘Aladdin and His Winter Wish’.

The casts intentionally blend big names with up-and-coming local talent.

Aladdin and His Winter Wish will feature recording artist Kira Kosarin (who starred as Phoebe in Nickelodeon’s The Thundermans) as the Princess, , Damon J. Gillespie (Broadway’s Newsies, Aladdin, NBC’s Rise) as Aladdin, Richard Karn (Al Borland in the ’90s sitcom Home Improvement) as the hypnotism-prone Sultan, Bruce Vilanch (Emmy Award-winning TV comedy writer and actor of Hairspray, Hollywood Squares) as Widow Twanky, Josh Adamson (ABC Family’s First Landing) as Abanazar, Jonathan Meza (The Familiar of Zero, Nickelodeon’s The Jumpitz) as Wishee Washee and just-announced star Mykal Kilgore (Broadway’s Songs for a New World, NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live) as the Genie.

The adult ensemble will feature Alexis Gilbert, Louis Williams, Anna Melendres and Rachel Melendres, as well as local dancers Chelsea Hough, Daniel Thomas and Albanus Thierry.

Previous Lythgoe Family Give Kids Panto shows have starred Ariana Grande, Neil Patrick Harris, Ben Vereen and more.

No stranger to Nashville theatre, the production will be directed by Ernie Nolan, executive artistic director of Nashville Children’s Theatre.

“The cast is a fantastic mix of seasoned entertainers and local fresh faces. Nashville isn’t just ‘Music City,’ it’s a vibrant arts town,” says Nolan. “I can’t wait until audiences will be able to see some of the best dancers and performers around.”

Another magical addition to the Lythgoe Family Give Kids Panto team is choreographer Chase Benz, who has come full circle growing up in Nashville (even auditioning at the Cool Springs Galleria himself) to working with names like Britney Spears and – most recently – Carrie Underwood.

dancers performing in Aladdin

Aladdin gets a modern twist with pop music, from “Treasure” by Bruno Mars to Ray Charles’ “You Don’t Know Me”.

As another way to localize the production, auditions for youth and adult dancers were held at Cool Springs Galleria south of Nashville. Benz, Nolan and Becky Lythgoe joined TPAC in leading over 100 dancers through this educational process in order to make their winter wishes come true. The local youth ensemble will feature Reese Benton (Grassland Elementary), Christopher Burns (Roots Dance), Kinsey Burchett (Davidson Academy), Dayton Winker (MDC), Leila Winker (MDC), Mollie ter Kuile (Poplar Grove), Claire Green (CTG), Indya Sowell (Mt Juliet), Kiara Cabriana (American Academy), Nikolas Ware (Mt Juliet), Chloe Wiest (Hermitage) and Valeria Romero (Millennium Dance). Below is a video chronicling the unique experience.

For Kris Lythgoe, it all comes back to family.

“This all started with my son. We had moved to Los Angeles and there just wasn’t a lot of live theater opportunities for young kids — and that’s what panto is all about,” Lythgoe said. “With these shows, the kids are on the edge of their seat. They’re always engaged because they think they’re in the show; and effectively they are because these shows are so interactive by nature.”

After the success of last year’s seasonal spectacular Peter Pan and Tinkerbell – A Pirate’s Christmas, bring your family to experience the magic of Aladdin and His Winter Wish coming to TPAC’s Polk Theater Dec. 12-22.

Tickets are on sale now at TPAC.org or calling the box office at 615-782-4040.

Reach Michael Aldrich on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter @michaelwaldrich.

Here’s a peak behind the scenes of the Aladdin and His Winter Wish local audition process:

Lythgoe Family Give Kids Panto is a California based non-profit company that pays for school children to experience live theater for the very first time. Buses are paid for and tickets are subsidized as young kids are introduced to the Arts. In 2017, over 6,000 Title I students were introduced by the Lythgoes to live theater through the medium of Panto. For more information, visit www.givekidspanto.com.