Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Aladdin is a feel-good rags to riches story. Aladdin, an impoverished, orphaned street urchin, wins wealth, power and true love, all while affirming his basically good heart and generous nature. It also offers a heroine, Jasmine, whose defiance of traditional expectations of princesses (or females in general), intelligence, and adventurous spirit are rewarded with true love (she is a princess, so she already had wealth and power). There is an easy-to-despise villain, Jafar, scheming to keep Jasmine from marrying so that he may ascend to the throne, a dim-witted Sultan whose power doesn't keep him from being deceived by Jafar, and a fabulous larger-than-life Genie who steals the show with singing, dancing, and making wishes come true.
In transitioning from celluloid to live actors, Chad Beguelin's book maintains the movie's comic wit. It exchanges several endearing animal sidekicks for human companions. Jasmine's tiger is replaced by three attending maidens who aid and abet the princess in her exploits. Jafar's parrot, Iago, has become a human sycophant who turns his boss' evil pronouncements into comic gold. Aladdin's cautionary monkey, Abu, has been replaced by three friends, partners in living by their wiles: Babkak, Omar and Kassim. Those three guys actually are given something to do in the revised plot other than offer encouragement and background harmonies.
The animated Aladdin was heralded for its music, but it actually has only five songs. Composer Alan Menken wrote three of those with his long-time lyricist partner Howard Ashman, but when Ashman fell ill (and subsequently died of AIDS), Tim Rice stepped in and provided lyrics for the last two, including the Oscar winner "A Whole New World." The stage production adds seven songs to the score: three written by Menken with Ashman, that were not used in the movie, and four brand new songs composed by Menken with lyrics by bookwriter Chad Beguelin. This mix of familiar and new tunes works well, melding into a score that sounds and feels cohesive. Particularly effective is "Proud of Your Boy," one of the restored Menken-Ashman songs, in which Aladdin pledges to the memory of his departed mother, that he will achieve both virtuousness and greatness. The song is reprised before the curtain falls on act one, sending us to the lobby assured that in spite of his wily tricks and petty crimes, Aladdin is a hero we can root for.
But what makes this show sheer fun are the dazzling production numbers. Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw leaves no showbiz stone unturned. The opener "Arabian Nights," the wild marketplace chase "One Step Ahead," Aladdin's plot to win the princess' hand as "Prince Ali," and the number that out-dazzles them all, "A Friend Like Me," blaze on the stage and ignite the audience. "A Friend Like Me" makes affectionate fun of just about every known form of Broadway showmanship, and maybe invents a couple of its own. Every time we think the number has reached its apex, another, brassier wave of merriment pours out on stage. It's like thinking the Fourth of July fireworks have reached their grand finale, only to have that topped by an even louder, brighter, busier display of exuberance. The mellow-toned "A Whole New World" isn't given a production number, but it does have the privilege of being performed on a flying carpet, lit so that I would swear there were no strings attached.
The touring company of Aladdin offers another bonus, the presence of Adam Jacobs as Aladdin. Jacobs originated the role, not only on Broadway but in the show's 2012 tryout production in Seattle. He has a boyish presence and abundant energy, along with a solid, voice and the handsome charm to win a princess' heart. As the Geniethe role played with legendary manic energy by the late Robin Williams in the movie, and that won a Best Featured Actor Tony for James Monroe IglehartAnthony Murphy made fans of everyone in the large crowd at the Orpheum at the performance I attended. The part, shaped to resemble a Cab Calloway-like showman, calls for a performer who has a booming voice, is a lithe dancer in spite of carrying a large frame, provides crack delivery of one-liners, and has a big dose of charisma. Murphy delivers.
As Princess Jasmine, Isabella McCalla has the presence of a strong-willed, smart young woman, and with a pleasing voice. Jonathan Weir's Jafar oozes with sinister intent, while Reggie DeLeon as his comic sidekick Iago repeatedly draws laughs. The trio of Zach Bencal, Philippe Arroyo, and Mike Longo as Aladdin's posse, Babkak, Omar and Kassim, display the required comic chops, as well as solid song and dance skills in "Babkak, Omar, Aladdin and Kassim," "High Adventure," and "Someone's Got Your Back." The ensemble performs the exhausting dance numbers with boundless energy and grace.
The show is beautifully designed, with extravagant costumes by Gregg Barnes and sets by Bob Crowley that create the illusion of Arabian dunes, the intricate interiors of a sultan's palace, the labyrinth of a Mideastern marketplace andmost impressivea forbidding cave inhabited by dark magic which transforms itself into a veritable Radio City Music Hall once the Genie is unleashed. Natasha Katz's lighting establishes the tone, from foreboding to exuberant, of each scene, and Ken Travis' sound design overcomes the Orpheum's challenging acoustics. A substantial orchestra of 23 musicians conducted by Brent-Alan Huffman make the score sound terrific.
Aladdin is a bright, bold, entertaining show. The plot is flimsy, the characters have no depth, and its depiction of Middle Eastern culture (past or present) bears little resemblance to reality. Don't go if you are looking for any of those things. Do go you if you enjoy fantastic stagecraft, catchy songs, great dancing, wholesome humor, and delightful performances. This show is a fun-filled flying carpet.
Aladdin runs through October 8, 2017, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets: $39.00 - $169.00*.* For ticket information call 800-982-2787 or go to hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit www.aladdinthemusical.com/tour.
Book: Chad Beguelin; Music: Alan Menken; Lyrics: Howard Ashman, Tim rice and Chad Beguelin; Director and Choreography: Casey Nicholaw; Scenic Design: Bob Crowley; Costume Design: Gregg Barnes; Lighting Design: Natasha Katz; Sound Design: Ken Travis; Hair Design: Josh Marquette; Makeup Design: Milagros Medina-Cerdeira; Illusion Design: Jim Steinmeyer; Orchestrations: Danny Troob; Music Director and Conductor: Brent-Alan Huffman; Dance Music Arrangements: Glen Kelly; Music Coordinator: Howard Jones; Original Fight Direction: J. Allen Suddeth; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Eric Woodall, CSA; Production Stage Manager: Michael McGoff; Associate Director: Scotty Taylor; Dance Supervisor: Michael Mindlin
Cast: Mary Antonini (Jasmine's attendant), Philippe Arroyo (Omar), Zach Bencal (Babkak), Bobby Daye (Razoul), Reggie De Leon (Iago), Olivia Donalson (Jasmine's attendant/fortune teller), Michael Graceffa (shop owner), Adam Jacobs (Aladdin), Albert Jennings (henchman), Mike Longo (Kassim), Isabelle McCalla (Jasmine), J.C. Montgomery (Sultan), Anthony Murphy (Genie), Jaz Sealey (Prince Abdullah), Charles South (henchman), Annie Wallace (Jasmine's attendant), Jonathan Weir (Jafar). Ensemble: Mary Antonini, Bobby Daye, Olivia Donalson, Michael Everett, Michael Graceffa, Clinton Greenspan, Adrienne Howard, Albert Jennings, Kenway Hon Wai. Kua, Jason Scott MacDonald, Angelina Mullins, Celina Nightengale Kameron Richardson, Jaz Sealey, Charles South, Manny Stark, Annie Wallace and Michelle West.