Sunday, September 24, 2017

Aladdin Amazes at the Orpheum

The latest iteration of Disney's classic cartoons has some fine moments.


Photo by Deen van Meer

The crowd at the Orpheum was getting restless. Two songs before the Act 1 finale we were informed that there was a technical issue and the action briefly paused. What on earth could we be waiting for?

Turns out it was the spectacular Cave of Wonders (where Aladdin finds the Genie, remember?), and boy, was it ever worth the wait. It's the most spectacular set I've seen on a traveling Broadway stage, and once the action was in play we could all see why; scene drops, fireworks, flame bursts, magical tricks, and a whole lot more effects summed up to make the number a showstopper and the audience forget all about the quick pause. It was easily my family's favorite part of the show, and I'm glad the production staff took a moment to make sure the action could safely proceed before dazzling us with the spectacle.

Photo by Deen van Meer

Let's back up for a minute though. I'm sure you've heard of Aladdin (if not, get thee to a garage sale to find an inevitable VHS copy and watch it, stat), which is one of Disney's most beloved cartoon films. It was the first animated film to really generate discussion of nominating an actor's voiceover work for major awards like the Oscars thanks to Robin Williams' ingenious depiction of the Genie, which is to this day one of the most manic, unbelievably entertaining moments in children's film, ever.

Photo by Deen van Meer

Think of Aladdin as the Arabian Robin Hood, just with more magic, more romance, and way better music. Aladdin is a streetwise orphan struggling to live in poverty in Agraba; Jasmine is a gorgeous princess who feels trapped by her riches and royal expectations. Their worlds abruptly collide when Jasmine sneaks out of the palace one day, landing them both in the cross-sights of Jafar, the evil adviser to the Sultan. Jafar, consumed with the idea of ruling Agraba, manipulates Aladdin into getting him a magic lamp so that he can use a Genie's power to overthrow the Sultan. Things hit a snag when instead Aladdin becomes the owner of the lamp and enlists the Genie to help him win Jasmine back. The rest of the story is a tussle between these two plot lines, and as always Disney delivers a happy ending with a wink and a smile.

Photo by Deen van Meer

The magical element is one of the main reasons I am sure it's taken so long to bring Aladdin to stage; after all, how do you convincingly pull off flying carpets, enlightened animals, and all the panache a Genie has to offer? Most of this translated pretty well in this production, sans animals (sorry everyone, no Rajah or Abu to be found here). Instead, these characters are replaced with human companions for both Jasmine and Aladdin, along with several new songs. The effect works, but I have to say: I did miss our animal friends. The new music is good, but the showstoppers are still the original songs from the 1992 film, and they're still the main reason to go now.

Photo by Deen van Meer

The charm of this production lies heavily on the leads, and it's a good thing that they fit their bills perfectly. Up first is Adam Jacobs as Aladdin, and he couldn't be better cast. Jacobs has a knockout, trademark Disney voice, with all the swagger and charm Aladdin's character deserves. Watch out for him - he could be making some serious moves in the future. Anthony Murphy is reminiscent of Titus Burgess as the Genie; it's a different take than the Robin Williams version, but let's be honest: who is going to live up to that standard? Murphy's new direction is charming and well suited to the stage, and the audience loved him from his first opening note. Jonathan Weir is delightfully cartoony as Jafar (read my interview with him here) and it's easy to see how he has made a career owning the Disney villain trope. JC Montgomery has the show's most surprisingly awesome voice as the Sultan; I wish he had more songs so we could have reveled in his deep bass tones just a little longer. And Isabelle McCalla brings a fierce, feminist bent to her role as Jasmine with a touch of Idina Menzel; it's awesome to see a Disney princess providing a strong, kickass role model to all of the little girls in the audience.

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Speaking of little girls: I took my nieces and nephews to see this, and they loved it, but be warned: this Aladdin is a little more grownup. It's probably best suited to kids age 8 and older; younger can still enjoy it, but it's they may miss out on the humor. The age range for our kiddos was 9 to 13, and it was the perfect spread for enjoying this show.

Part of this maturity comes from the stunningly beautiful cast members, who traipse across the stage in varying states of sexy Agrabanian fashions and make winking asides to the audience. Dance Captain Michael Callahan has clearly coached them to the nines, and all of the dance numbers are lit with a whirlwind of choreography by Casey Nicholaw. Coupled with the costumes by Gregg Barnes, which are almost radioactive they're so colorful, it's quite an effect to behold. No expense was spared on Bob Crowley's scenic design, which includes the aforementioned Cave of Wonders, but also the show's most stunning effect: a real, working magic carpet that glides through the air in front of a sky of a million stars and radiant moon. It's a gorgeous effect that has the audience lost in time and space, floating weightless through the clouds with Aladdin and Jasmine; that single scene was worth the entire admission for me. I wish there were a few more moments that outstanding through the rest of the show, but either way: that flying carpet will give you your money's worth, and then some.

Photo by Deen van Meer

I forgot how wonderful the music from the original Aladdin was, and thanks to the superb direction of Conductor Brent-Alan Huffman I won't be likely to make that mistake again. Huffman leads the pit orchestra to literally burn through the songs, filling the Orpheum with lively jazz and swing and bringing the magic to numbers like "Friend Like Me," "Prince Ali," "Arabian Nights," and "A Whole New World." I loved seeing that the pit also used local musicians to supplement the orchestra, and it was great fun to take the kids down to look at the musicians at intermission (a practice my father started with me as a kid and that I highly recommend everyone do at least once).

Photo by Deen van Meer

There's nothing like a Disney show on stage. The company spares no expense in converting these stories to the theater, and it clearly shows throughout their shows. Aladdin retains a lot of the Disney magic that is seen in eternal favorites like Beauty and the Beast and Mary Poppins. I wouldn't rate Aladdin quite as highly as The Lion King - again, it's not really a fair comparison - but we had a great time going with the family and the kids each said they really enjoyed it. The Cave of Wonders and flying carpet are spectacular moments that I will be thinking of for some time to come, and I look forward to seeing what Disney has up its sleeves next. Aladdin runs through October 8; for more information and to buy tickets, click on this link.