BWW Review: Something Different This Way Comes in HOCUS POCUS VILLAIN SPELLTACULAR at Magic Kingdom
I run with a theme park kind of crowd. Getting us to a 20-minute version of Finding Nemo or Frozen on stage doesn't take a lot of persuasion. Theme park entertainment has its trappings and limitations, to be sure. But at Walt Disney World, at least, the talent caliber is pretty darn high.
Disney fans are my people, and we love a "Live on Stage."
If you're not one of those people, I get it. There's something about a condensed version of an animated film set to a backing track and performed every half-hour that seems to hit on everything Broadway purists hate about the post-Beauty and the Beast, pop-infused, screen-to-stage state of musical theatre.
I'm here today to tell you about a show that may not break the mold but does do something different with it. And if you're plugged into the Orlando theatre scene but are decidedly not a theme park person, it still just might be for you - especially this time of year.
It's the HOCUS POCUS VILLAIN SPELLTACULAR at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom, a 20-ish minute show performed on the Cinderella Castle forecourt stage exclusively during Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party (a separately ticketed event available on select nights in the late summer and fall).
Yes, I said HOCUS POCUS... as in that weird, witchy movie that flopped hard back in 1993 but then crawled back from the dead, claiming its crown as the most-watched Halloween movie of our era, airing some three dozen times on Freeform this month alone (not to mention on a brand-new Blu-ray for 2018, with some impressive bonus features to boot).
Having previously announced myself as a Disney fan and a theme park fan, I must now make another disclaimer: I'm writing this as a huge HOCUS POCUS fan too. I love it so much, in fact, that I wrote an entire book about the movie, Hocus Pocus in Focus: The Thinking Fan's Guide to Disney's Halloween Classic, enlisting some of its cast and crew along the way.
You can imagine my excitement, then, when Walt Disney World announced a few years back that it would retire its long-running Not-So-Scary stage show (delightful but oh so very theme park-ish) for something more novel, with those sinful songstresses the Sanderson Sisters front and center.
HOCUS POCUS VILLAIN SPELLTACULAR was a smashing success upon its debut in 2015, and it has since become the undisputed highlight of Halloween time at Magic Kingdom.
It's back for 2018, and the show's as good as ever.
Night after night, three dead-ringers for Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy rush from behind a cemetery gate to the front of the stage, the towering Cinderella Castle lit up in spooky candelabras (impressively projection mapped) behind them. Without fail, the crowd either gasps with surprise or screams in delight, not having been prepared for something quite this true-to-film.
The reaction doesn't end there. What follows isn't your typical rehashing of events you already know or a straightforward musical revue. This is an original story - clever, funny, and paced at a clip. It finds the Sanderson Sisters returning from the grave for a second time (having been - SPOILER ALERT - vanquished at the end of the film) and once again casting an evil spell over their audience. To do that, they need contributions from every facet of the dark arts. So they summon a few "frightful friends": Disney villains on the order of Oogie Boogie, Dr. Facilier, and the HBIC herself, Maleficent, all of them arriving credibly as part of the narrative.
The songs, too, are organic to the story... even those that didn't originate with the movie, like "Oogie Boogie's Song" and Facilier's "Friends on the Other Side." Those aren't sung live, unfortunately, but they do feature newly recorded performances by the original voice artists, their lines and lyrics modified to fit this show.
The other numbers are sung live, and by extremely talented performers, many of them staples of the Central Florida theatre community... though Walt Disney World regrettably does not credit its cast publicly (don't expect to pick up a Playbill on Main Street, U.S.A.). Jennica McCleary, the actress who originated the role of Winifred Sanderson in this show (based on Bette Midler's film performance), has managed to gain new clout from her much-heralded debut in 2015, having since launched her own HOCUS POCUS-inspired rock-music cabaret and taken it on the road.
Happily, Disney does credit its creators, and they've earned a salute. Show director Denise Case brings a long background in musical theatre to the table, with credits including the Papermill Playhouse. Creative director Reed Jones cut his teeth as a Magic Kingdom performer in the park's early days, later graduating to show writing before assuming his current creative role. Meanwhile, writer Allison Hirsch grew up as a huge Hocus Pocus fan herself, and it shows. Together with Case and Jones, she has crafted a script that seems more in tune with the movie's DNA than I would ever have expected - right down to an oh-so-subtle nod to the theme of virginity.
Over in California, the Disneyland Resort is known for staging long-form shows with Broadway-ish aspirations. They run over an hour and play inside seated theaters, a combination Walt Disney World hasn't quite tried in one of its theme parks yet. (Rumor has it that a previously announced, permanently enclosed theater planned for Main Street, U.S.A. would have housed just such a show, but the project was recently scrapped until further notice.)
But in HOCUS POCUS VILLAIN SPELLTACULAR, Walt Disney World is doing something all its own, making new rope out of old yarn and dying it a festive orange. It's simply Orlando's best Halloween-themed offering, and anyone who loves the holiday would be remiss to miss out. Coupled with everything else Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party has to offer - spooky fireworks, unlimited trick-or-treating, and the resort's hands-down best parade - it's the hottest holiday ticket in town.
HOCUS POCUS VILLAIN SPELLTACULAR is included in the price of admission to Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, which is held on select nights through October 31. Party admission is sold separately from regular daytime admission to Magic Kingdom or other Walt Disney World theme parks. (While not yet officially announced, the VILLAIN SPELLTACULAR is widely expected to return for 2019 as well.) To purchase tickets for 2018, visit the Walt Disney World website or call (407) 939-5277.
What did you think of the HOCUS POCUS VILLAIN SPELLTACULAR? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.
Photo Credit: Walt Disney World