Aladdin at Disneyland
You've gotta hand it to Disney for trying. The idea behind Disney's Aladdin - A Musical Spectacular is to use a Broadway-calibre creative team and performers to present a 45-minute musical that is something better than your standard theme park show. And they've succeeded at that - Disney's Aladdin is better-staged, better-danced, and all around more fun than the theme park shows parents are reluctantly dragged to by their children. But there are some problems, both with the concept in general and this show in particular, that prevent it from being a roaring success.
First, the good news. From its opening turn-off-your-cell-phone speech to its final bows, this show looks like theatre. Opera and theatre designer Peter J. Davison's sets are impressive, from the market scene (with moving walls) which introduces Aladdin, to the lighted staircase that hosts a bevy of dancing Genies. Anita Yavich (also with numerous theatre and opera credits) provides 250 costumes, on which it appears no expense has been spared. Tony-nominee Lynne Taylor-Corbett brings some truly impressive choreography to the show, and the 28-member ensemble executes the dance and acrobatic moves with flair. In its quick running time, the show manages four huge production numbers, two other songs (including one new one), and the key plot points from the ninety-minute animated film on which it is based. There are some delightful elements in the show which bring to mind Disney's successful Broadway musicals, including some Lion King-esque puppets and a person dressed as the flying carpet in the best Beauty and the Beast tradition. For children too young to sit still through a Broadway musical, Disney's Aladdin can serve as an easy, fun (and inexpensive) introduction to theatre.
Now, the problems. Inherent in any attempt to condense a story to half its original size is the fact that something is going to get lost. In this case, what gets lost is character development. Each main character has a song or scene of introduction, a problem, and a moment of change - then the show is over. There's no time for the characters to evolve, and therefore no chance for the audience to develop an emotional attachment to them. The show is dual cast (and cast lists are not provided for the audience). At the performance reviewed, Aladdin had a strong singing voice and a generally likeable personality, although he lacked the craftiness of his movie counterpart. Jasmine had a syrupy speaking voice that lacked the depth of the film Jasmine (Linda Larkin), making her more like a stereotypical old-fashioned Disney heroine than the complex and quick-tempered teenager we expect. Given that and the show's short running time, there is no real chemistry between Aladdin and Jasmine, and their final kiss is passionless.
Another problem that comes along with a theatre-type show in a theme park setting is over-amplification. The 2000-seat Hyperion Theater is filled with music, loud enough to drown out any crying toddlers who might be in attendance. But this is accomplished by just cranking up the overall volume at the expense of a proper sound mix. In "One Jump Ahead," sometimes Aladdin has the lead vocal, other times chorus members must carry the lyrics. But the sound is not amplified to accentuate whoever might be singing, it is simply loud all over, making it impossible to follow the song if you don't already know it.
Some of the smartest bits of this show come when it is not afraid to depart from the script of the movie. The actor voicing the evil hench-bird Iago (and operating his puppet) does not try to duplicate the harsh delivery of Gilbert Gottfried, but rather adopts his own evil attitude. And, most important, the actor playing the Genie copies neither Robin Williams's voice nor his jokes, replacing them with his own fast-talking schtick. In each case, the essence of the character is retained, but it has been allowed to transform into something fresh and funny.
More departures from the film script would be welcome. Chad Beguelin's book is unafraid to edit the movie's script for time, but it should make further changes to make better sense on stage. The final battle between Aladdin and Jafar, in which Jafar is twice transformed into different creatures, is confusing to follow - it is difficult to tell that Jafar himself is becoming these creatures. The show would be better off with a battle more suited to stagecraft. A smaller, yet also necessary, change is the end of "One Jump Ahead." In the movie, Aladdin leaps out an upper-story window and yells a lyric about jumping. On stage, he is not in a window, but he sings the lyric anyway, and does a wire-assisted long-jump that is more superhero than "street rat." Remaining tied to the "jump" lyric ends up using a special effect for no reason at all, and, worse, undermining the character. Either the staging should be changed or the lyric must go.
Disney's Aladdin is an interesting experiment in crossing theme park entertainment with musical theatre. It exposes several weaknesses in the hybrid form and also has some problems of its own. But it is better than other theme park shows and can be a valuable resource for introducing young children to theatre in a welcoming atmosphere.
Disney's Aladdin - A Musical Spectacular is now in daily performances at the Hyperion Theater in Disney's California Adventure park in Anaheim.
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