Any notion that TUTS produced Sleeping Beauty and Her Winter Knight as a loving homage to the Disney classic evaporates by the end of the first number. A troupe of child actors—a prominent addition courtesy of TUTS' Humphreys School of Musical Theatre—parades onstage, fist pumping not to the exalted strains of "Once Upon A Dream" but rather to the 2011 LMFAO club standard, "Party Rock Anthem."
No, in the holiday tradition of British panto, this Sleeping Beauty incorporates the audience, asking you to boo the evil Carabosse (neé Maleficent, portrayed by Debbie Gravitte) and cheer for the Prince and knights to-be. That fourth wall? Demolished completely. The timeless score? Ditched in favor of popular tunes ranging from Lady Gaga to Blondie to "Moon River." Whereas theater normally suspends our reality for the one it creates onstage, this production, with a book by Kris Lythgoe and arrangements from Michael Orland, acknowledges the artifice of the fairy tale throughout, at times literally winking at the audience.
To name a few instances where reality bleeds into fantasy, consider Silly Billy (Ben Giroux), the bumbling royal guard, who pauses the show to take an audience selfie. The Good Fairy (Vonzell Solomon), amid a climactic battle with Carabosse, brags about her real-life brush with fame on American Idol, with the villain in turn mentioning her Tony Award (Best Featured Actress for Jerome Robbins' Broadway). And John O'Hurley, here playing the King, is privy to the requisite Seinfeld joke (sadly his noted career in dog shows garnered no mention).
But you're allowed to have some fun when the story is so familiar, and this version hams things up as much as possible. Carabosse is the cape-whipping, mustache-twirling villain, plotting to prick Princess Aurora (Lauren Taylor) on a spindle and throw her into a 100-year slumber. The princess is destined to marry the prince of a neighboring kingdom (Garrett Clayton), here presented as a vain, swaggering buffoon equivalent to a Season One Steve Harrington. Silly Billy, along with Nanny Tickle (Jeff Sumner in drag), are both the comic relief and the heroic sidekicks, pushing the plot along and driving Aurora and the Prince toward their happily ever after.
You quickly discover a good share of the dialogue is littered with Houston-specific references. My theater companion, who in a past life wrote for a wrestling magazine, identified this grating habit as "cheap heat." This piece of jargon describes any direct appeal to the crowd, using local trivia to get a reaction. (Think: a politician mentioning corn on a campaign stop in Iowa, or any number of hollow "Go Astros!" comments sprinkled into recent conversation.)
As a snapshot of the cheap heat foisted upon Sarofim Hall, I offer this humble list of plot points and one-liners from Sleeping Beauty: a regular king replaced by the "King of Houston"; a prince recast as the "Prince of River Oaks"; something being "more tempting than Whataburger on a juice cleanse"; a wedding dance called the "Westheimer Waltz"; the use of the horrible (and inaccurate) "Houston, we have a problem"; unpleasant potshots at characters from "outside the Loop"; a non sequitur shoutout to Mattress Mack; a piece of gossip being "all over TMZ and PaperCity"; a craving for Torchy's Tacos (a franchise not even from Houston!); and—the one that actually got a chuckle from me—the Prince's father having "more money than Tilman Fertitta." There's nothing wrong with localizing the show, of course, but the punchlines sound like they're culled from a bad Thrillist article. No Houstonian needs to buy a theater ticket to be told Dallas sucks, yet this show proceeds to do just that on at least three occasions.
In terms of performance, several of the performers, particularly the Good Fairy, Aurora, and the Prince (who has a wonderful falsetto) brought down the house. But more often, I struggled to hear the performers over the blaring instrumentals, particularly during "Happy" and "What I'll Do." I really enjoyed watching O'Hurley wave his arms to an Irving Berlin tune, but I would also have liked to hear him sing. And toward the end of the opening night show, the Prince's mic repeatedly malfunctioned, producing a muffled sound like he was talking through a wall (perhaps they have ironed out the kinks).
Most of all, even with the actors egging on the audience to boo louder and cheer more violently, the production begins to feel interminable, clocking in at over two hours. Especially after intermission, the gaps left for reaction or laughter were increasingly filled by the ambient sound of phlegmy kid coughs and shuffling bodies. One row in front of us, a young boy was visibly struggling to escape from his own 100-year slumber, although, to be fair, he was gleefully leaping from his seat during the first half (we were too).
By the end of the show, and after the flat jokes and technical hiccups, we wondered: Were some audience members booing for the panto or the performance?
Thru Dec. 24. Tickets from $30. Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St. 713-558-2600. More info and tickets at tuts.com.