At the Cadillac Palace Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –“Aladdin” is in town for a generous five-month run, which still probably won’t be long enough to satisfy the local and tourist demand for a musical extravaganza straight out of the Disney top drawer. The Disney brand name alone is sufficient to attract audiences, but the Disney people haven’t coasted on their reputation. The top ticket prices at the Cadillac Palace Theatre rival the tab on Broadway, but Chicago is getting a brilliant Broadway caliber staging, down to the production’s original star.
“Aladdin” is the stage adaptation of the 1992 Disney animated motion picture. The plot is wafer thin, a boy meets girl story (in this case a cheeky commoner meets a beautiful princess) in an Arabian Nights setting. After the mandatory bickering between the saucy lad and the feisty young lady, love sets in. To sustain a semblance of a storyline, they must overcome the machinations of Jafar (Chicago actor Jonathan Weir in a lip-smacking performance), the evil vizer who wants to become the country’s sultan and finds the princess an impediment to his evil scheme. In the fullness of time, or roughly 2 hours and 25 minutes on the stage, love triumphs, Jafar is defeated, and the audience happily departs, many of them purchasing souvenirs in the lobby to commemorate a pretty memorable evening.
Chad Beguelin’s book provides just enough narrative skeleton to carry us from one splendiferous production number to another. Sometimes the plot stops in its tracks to admit a free standing song and dance number, giving “Aladdin” more of a revue quality than a coherent musical comedy. The score by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, and Beguelin is serviceable but after a while all the numbers tended to sound alike. The backstage heroes of the evening are the designers, director, and choreographer, not to mention the producers who made available enough money for costumes, sets, and special effects to rival the gross national product of Zimbabwe.
The show opens with a comic monologue by the Genie (Anthony Murphy), imprisoned in a magic lamp and capable of granting three wishes to the lamp’s owner. The Genie is a character in the narrative as well as a kind of Las Vegas lounge act master of ceremonies. In short order we meet the title character (Adam Jacobs), a raffish and impoverished young man who with three cronies squeezes out a living as a petty thief in the city bazaar. We also meet Jasmine (Isabelle McCalla), the princess who (horrors) has a mind of her own and refuses to marry any of the eligible princes nominated by her father, the sultan. Jasmine is a departure from the sweet young things of earlier Disney films and musicals. She has an independent spirit and gives off a faint whiff of feminism, though without any help from fellow female characters. Jasmine is the only woman of note in the show. The male side numbers nine distinct characters, a pretty unequal gender playing field, even for a purposeful young princess who wants control of her own life.
The action moves along at a tepid pace during the early scenes of the first act, until Aladdin finds himself inside the treasure cave that holds the magic lamp. That becomes the setting for one of the longest and most exhilarating production numbers I’ve ever seen on a stage. The scene is built on a tune called “Friend Like Me” that is quickly left in the dust as Aladdin, the Genie, and especially the giant chorus embark on a spectacular sequence of dances that are a feast of high energy hoofing, costumes, and lighting effects overseen by director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw.
Musical comedy buffs will have a joyous time identifying the self referential influences in “Friend Like Me,” from “42nd Street” to “Hello, Dolly” to the TV show “Let’s Make a Deal” and “America’s Got Talent.” I even thought I caught about four bars of music from “West Side Story.” The number drew a standing ovation and I suspect that the audience would have voted to have the ensemble go through the entire piece again on the spot.
“Friend Like Me” is the creative apex of the evening. The show too often strays into slapstick comedy and corny jokes that evoke easy laughs from the audience but drop the creativity level down a notch. There is a gnomish comic character named Iago ((Reggie De Leon) who takes the mandatory role of the villain’s wisecracking sidekick, a mugging, shtick-drenched character I found tiresome. By the by, there are no animals in the show, no jive-talking parrots or rodents.
There is no attempt at sophistication to the “Aladdin” storyline and the humor generally doesn’t attempt flights of wit. One exception comes in the opening moments when the Genie reaches into his robes for his magic lamp and pulls out a Cubs cap. The setting may be the never-never land of the Arabian Nights but its spirit is pure modern anachronism, like “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” though that show does indulge in genuine wit. But “Aladdin” isn’t trying to reach out to the Sondheim crowd.
Adam Jacobs was the original Broadway Aladdin and he is an ingratiating young actor-singer-dancer. McCalla has an edge to her Jasmine that might be at home in “Jersey Boys.” But in true Disney fashion, her character willingly succumbs to true love and likely will cede ruling the kingdom to her husband when her sultan-father leaves the scene. Johnson’s Genie dominates the show with his physical presence and his stamina. He looks like a reduced-sized Shaquille O’Neill and he contributes perhaps the show’s one serious note in his reaction to Aladdin’s decision not to free the Genie with the lamp’s third and final wish. Zach Bencal, Philippe Arroyo, and Mike Longo play Aladdin’s three mates, supplying much of the show’s broad humor. JC Montgomery does a nice realistic turn as the sultan.
“Aladdin” is really a celebration of what imagination, a sure theatrical sense, and an unlimited budget can create on the stage. According to a media handout, there are 337 costumes in the show, which seems like an undercount by about 1,000. Costume designer Gregg Barnes supervised 342 artisans in making the costumes out of 2,039 fabrics and trims (did someone really count them?). The costumes are rooted in an Arabian Nights look but the color and style of the designs are remarkable in their variety.
The other designers of note are Bob Crowley (set design), Ken Travis (sound design), and Natasha Katz (lighting design). They and their battalions of assistants have worked wonders. Jim Steinmeyer is credited as illusion designer. There weren’t that many gee whiz special effects in the production, but the magic carpet really did seem to float magically above the stage without any wires I could detect. Maybe it really was a magic carpet.
Putting the whole show together is Casey Nicholaw, one of the geniuses behind “Book of Mormon,” a very different kind of show. He has done the improbable, guided PG and R musicals to super hit status at the same time.
“Aladdin has just entered its fourth year on Broadway and like “Wicked” and “The Lion King” it may never close. These family shows thrive on renewable resources of patrons, with a fresh pool of youngsters growing into audience potential every three or four years. The “Aladdin” book might not stand comparison with the books of those shows but as a festival of the theater arts at their most professional and imaginative the show at the Cadillac Palace Theatre is still a stunner.
“Aladdin” runs through September 10 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 West Randolph Street. Performances are Wednesday and Saturday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday at 1 and 6:30 p.m. Tickets are $44 to $153. Call 800 775 2000 or visit www.BroadwayInChicago.com.
The show gets a rating of 3½ stars.
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