Friday, November 3, 2017

"Aladdin"


Aladdin
Alan Menkin (Music);
Howard Ashman, Tim Rice & Chad Beguelin (Lyrics);
Chad Beguelin (Book)

The Cast of Aladdin
With exotic, kaleidoscopic colors of every hue imaginable, Disney’s Aladdin bursts onto the SHN Orpheum stage in a touring version that has more elaborate scene changes, more dazzling costumes, and more jumping tumbling, and even flying cast members than any traveling show in recent memory.  As the bustling market place of the Middle Eastern city of Agrabah comes to life in the opening “Arabian Nights,” sword swallowers, belly dancers, and acrobatic passers-by fill the stage amidst swirling robes and scarves, fast-moving merchandise carts laden with fruits, and little buildings that have their own way of dancing together – all awash with colors gone iridescently wild.  And the bigger-than-life Genie wearing seemingly dozens of yards of dazzling blue tucks and folds proclaims that in Agrabar, “Even the poor people are fabulous.”

The Cast of Aladdin
If the packed audience (even the sourest and most cynical among them now already smiling ear-to-ear) thinks that things will slow down to a normal pace from here, they have sold way too short the fast-paced, eye-popping direction and choreography of Casey Nicholaw; the immense, sparkling sets of Bob Crowley that come and go in a blink of the eye; and the hundreds (let’s say 337) of costumes designed by Gregg Barnes – some with as many as 8,644 Swarovski rhinestones embedded (so says the program).  And try to figure out how the members of the huge ensemble are able to change those outfits of 2,019 different fabrics and trims often in less than thirty seconds.  Even if the music of Alan Menkin and the lyrics of Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, and Chad Beguelin were not potential earworms that will haunt audience dreams for days (which they are), this is a musical that is unabashedly and unapologetically full of wonder, magic, and sheer fun for kids 3 to 99.  Warning: Do not come looking for life-changing messages of any serious nature.

Anthony Murphy
As is now often the case for Disney, Aladdin started as a big-screen animation hit in 2011 before transforming into its Broadway version in 2014.  At least two aspects of that NYC production seemed to be on everyone’s lips who saw the show:  The magic carpet (“How does it fly like that?”) and the Genie as played by Tony-winner James Monroe Iglehart (“How does that big man move that fast and in so many cool ways as he dances, slides, and tumbles all over the stage?”).  In this touring version, the carpet is still a character with its own personality that leaves jaws open and heads scratching as it swoops, dives, and flies with no noticeable devices or enablers – all the while Aladdin and Princess Jasmine are on board.  And the current Genie in this roadshow – Anthony Murphy – more than fills Mr. Iglehart’s up-turned slippers as he takes on a Cab Calloway persona in his moves, voice, and charisma.  Together, they are worth the price of the ticket, even forgetting all the other razzle and dazzle surrounding them.

Mr. Murphy’s Genie bubbles over with an alluring personality that fills the vast stage.  His humor is aided greatly by Chad Beguelin’s pun- and one-liner-packed book, but he often appears to be spontaneously generating his lines just for tonight’s audience.  He sings robustly with a hint of gleeful mischief in his wide eyes and uses every ounce of his large body to move in ways beguiling. 

Anthony Murphy, Adam Jacobs & Cast of Aladdin
After the Genie introduces the first scene, he disappears until Aladdin finally rubs his lantern, bringing the “riff-raff” boy of the streets the famed three wishes.  That Aladdin finds the lantern while entrapped in a mammoth cave of gold and jewels is due to the show’s villain (always a must for a Disney story), the Sultan’s Grand Vizier, Jafar.  Played with just enough evil to be a tad scary but also with a cartoonish air to be funny, Jonathan Weir is the diabolical Jafar who convinces innocent-enough Aladdin to go into the “Cave of Wonders” to get that lantern so that Jafar can make himself ruler and can marry the beautiful Sultan’s daughter, Jasmine.  (Jafar has been told by a magic spirit that Aladdin is a “diamond in the rough” and the only one who can enter the cave safely.)  His diminutively sized sidekick, Iago, (a delightful Reggie De Leon) is a bad guy who quickly becomes a crowd favorite with his constant flow of silly jokes and with his ability to roll around the stage with short legs moving a hundred miles an hour to keep up with the much taller Jafar.

Adam Jacobs
Adam Jacobs, a local boy from Half Moon Bay, originated the role of Aladdin on Broadway and continues this role in the national tour with the same youthful exuberance, playful nature, and romantic looks and outlooks that served him well on the Great White Way.  When he literally bumps into the Princess Jasmine in the city’s bustling marketplace, the Romeo-Juliet moment is full of sparks flying between them, setting up a storyline headed to that Disney-ending wedding everyone knows is coming.   

Isabelle McCalla & Adam Jacobs
Isabelle McCalla does not disappoint in any aspect (vocals, gumption, or looks) the formula we all now expect of a Disney princess.  When she and Aladdin sing together in two of the musical’s best-known numbers (“A Million Miles Away” and “A Whole New World”), their blended abilities have that Disney perfection that cannot help but wow and please, even if there is nothing much different in either’s sound than is heard from almost any, modern Disney show’s hero and heroine.

And that goes for the rest of this superbly talented and highly diverse cast.  Besides a the large ensemble that both sings and dances with total aplomb, three chums of Aladdin particularly stand out for their zany, reckless, and hilarious ways of cavorting around the streets, alleys, and roofs of Agrabar.  Zach Bencal, Philipe Arroyo, and Mike Longo play Babkak, Omar, and Kassim respectively and prove their mettle time and again when joining Aladdin, the Genie, and/or the entire ensemble in rousing, stage-filling numbers.  Both acts are book-ended with crowded stages of variously clothed (or not) bodies doing everything from tap dances to kick lines to body gyrations of every aerobic description. 

And with those numbers, as has been noted, come Mr. Barnes’ constantly changing costumes that glitter with all the over-done but thoroughly enjoyable flairs we often associate with a Las Vegas extravaganza.  The fantastically striking lighting design of Natasha Katz puts every costume and scene change into a storybook land of wonderfully reflected color.  The brassy, sassy sounds of the large orchestra conducted by Brent-Alan Huffman awaken all the aural senses to match the visual over-abundance of the stage show.

End-to-end, Aladdin is just plain fun.  Everything is over-done, and we do not care.  The talented cast backed by a book full of laughs and songs that are hummable appear to be having the times of their lives throughout.  That energy is contagious, spreading throughout the large Orpheum Theatre and leaving the entire audience with big satisfied smiles as they exit.

Rating: 5 E

Aladdin continues through January 7, 2018 at SHN’s Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at https://www.shnsf.com.

Photo Credits:  Deen van Meer

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