As rollickingly fun as Disney’s 1992 motion picture “Aladdin” is, the slightly reimagined stage show, which debuted in 2011 before beginning a Broadway engagement in 2014, is the stuff that dreams are made of. Now, as a touring production currently at the Hollywood Pantages Theatre through March 31st, “Aladdin” is a veritable cartoon come to life, and is a fantastical adventure that holds us in its charismatic grip with quips, laughs, exuberant choreography, catchy songs, and technical feats that gloriously underscore the wonder of Agrabah.
More so than that, the amazing Arabian tale, which features music from the ingenious mind of Alan Menken; lyrics by Chad Beguelin, Tim Rice, and the late Howard Ashman; book by Beguelin; and direction & choreography by Casey Nicholaw, captures the human heart and spirit by exploring what it means to be truly liberated. The narrative is more than just a love story between Aladdin and Jasmine, who must free themselves from their self-imposed imprisonment (irrespective of their polar-opposite economic standings) to come together in spite of Jafar’s disagreeable wishes; it is also the reclamation of the Genie’s identity, who rediscovers what it’s like to not be subjugated by his lamp-limiting circumstances any longer.
The two-and-a-half-hour stage spectacular is abundant with many other personalities and motivations, comprising a terrific supporting cast, who become part of an ambitious artistic enterprise that fully incorporates the talents of the behind-the-scenes crew. For instance, in addition to the inventive makeup by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira (especially on the Genie and Jafar), the breathtaking costumes by Gregg Barnes are a sight to behold. These include Jasmine’s trademark glittery blue ensemble, Jafar’s harrowingly impressive garb, the garments of the townsfolk and guards, resplendently sequined royal attire, and the embroidery and beautiful embellishment of the Genie’s outfit.
And, because the performers look as vivid as they do, the technical phenomena surrounding them are heightened even further. The lighting by Natasha Katz is picturesque and stimulating in how it is always excitingly evocative, even during darker moments. In addition, the scenic design by Bob Crowley is revolutionary in how it wows the attendees. For example, the Cave of Wonders scene – from the impressive tiger head glowering and bellowing from the depths of the unknown (credit goes to sound designer Ken Travis), to the treasure trove inside it, replete with glimmering gold, cobalt hues, and eye-catching sparkles, is worth the price of admission alone. Taking it a step beyond is the magic-carpet riding sequence (“A Whole New World”) speckled with shimmering stars, which satiates our inner explorative desires, as we observe Aladdin and Jasmine traversing the cosmos with merely a rug underneath them, and Earth looming splendidly in the background.
Inclusive of this is the pageantry and exhilaration offered by the vast number of pyrotechnics going off under the supervision of special-effects designer Jeremy Chernick, which is reminiscent of a rock concert tailor-made for Disney enthusiasts. The fireworks often transpire in tandem with the masterful work of illusion designer Jim Steinmeyer, who makes jaws plummet with a physics-defying carpet, the possessed pages of Jafar’s Book of Evil, and is able to help make characters and costumes appear, disappear, and reappear.
From a casting standpoint, the North American touring production of “Aladdin” is fortunate for having the man who originated the role for the stage — Adam Jacobs. Having portrayed Aladdin thousands of times over the years, Jacobs seems as fresh in the classic clothes as ever before. At 38, Jacobs has not lost his boyish charm, nor sensibilities, and remains doubtlessly credible as the well-intentioned and (initially) naïve chosen one. Not to mention, Jacobs tumbles and leaps around the set effortlessly while singing “One Jump Ahead,” exhibits poignant vibrato and vocal extension in “Proud of Your Boy,” and adds a layer of nostalgic emotionality — in conjunction with Isabelle McCalla (Jasmine) – during “A Million Miles Away” and “A Whole New World.”
McCalla makes for an empowered Jasmine, who is courageously resolute in the face of antiquated customs. As she insists to her father, the Sultan (played by the very likable JC Montgomery), she will marry who she loves. In fact, McCalla’s topical line and excellent delivery of “Why can’t a woman rule the kingdom?” receives an appropriate applause from the audience, who recognize the changing times of the past reflected in the present. Besides presenting a Jasmine that is not only stunning, but intelligent and gritty, McCalla has the pleasant reach-for-the-stars vocalizations demanded of the persona, which is especially highlighted during the self-reflective “These Palace Walls.”
The intimidating but funny Jafar is portrayed by Jonathan Weir, who has the intoned and stilted speech of the avaricious antagonist down pat. With magnificently groomed goatee, and with scepter in tow, Weir is the perfect embodiment of the legendary evildoer, who uses the power of his caustic and incisive remarks to carry out his diabolical plan of taking Jasmine for himself and becoming omnipotent. Weir is joined by Reggie De Leon, who plays Jafar’s nefarious, albeit uproarious, sycophantic sidekick, Iago. De Leon has a refreshing interpretation of his character’s motivations, and oftentimes transcends the parameters of his role and stature by taking center stage to the delight of the crowd.
The superstar of the show is unmistakably the Genie, who is the unrelentingly charming powerhouse throughout the musical. Michael James Scott, of “The Maggots Guy” fame in “The Book of Mormon” on Broadway, is the sassy, razzle-dazzling, raucous, and rip-roaring rapscallion, who very clearly commands the entire audience in the palm of his hand. In a life-imitates-art revelation, Scott’s glowing presence lends itself to an otherworldliness of its own from the very moment he appears at the outset, singing “Arabian Nights.” Scott has a tremendous tenor voice that never lets up even while he is covering endless square-footage in a finite time. His second introduction to the audience, sparking the ultimate crowd-pleaser, “Friend Like Me,” is a pop-culture propulsion of a scenario with innumerable possibilities (including tap-dancing and dancing with canes). Indubitably, it is a revue of its own accord, not unlike “A Musical” in “Something Rotten!”, which is also directed and choreographed by the multi-skilled Nicholaw. Lastly, and perhaps most notably, Scott sidesteps the potential downfall of a role like his by sustaining the hundred-mile-an-hour momentum and energy of the Genie well into Act II and the finale with “Prince Ali” and “Somebody’s Got Your Back.”
Further supplementing many of the laugh-out-loud moments are Aladdin’s three faithful friends, who follow their Prince-to-be buddy through thick and thin, and do so with a disarming and ebullient nature that is infectious to watch. Zach Bencal is Babkak, a perpetually hungry lover of food; Philippe Arroyo is Omar, a pacifist and self-proclaimed choreographer; and Mike Longo is Kassim, who is machismo and slapstick in one. The trio are a bountiful band of burlesque, who, along with their ensemble cohorts, successfully carry out Nicholaw’s choreographic vision to uniquely kinetic effect in “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim,” and particularly “High Adventure.” The latter is a nicely balanced affair with harmonized singing, and tried-and-true farce, à la Don Quixote and melodramatic slow motion. It is also seamlessly stitched together by Nicholaw and performed in such a way that it looks curiously poetic.
Overall, the touring stage production of “Aladdin” dramatically exceeds all expectations. It is an energetic, hypnotizing, and radiant show that stirs the passion for Disney nostalgia, while being necessarily self-aware, substantive, and applicable in 2018. It certainly has much to say on what it means to be free – from not only external circumstances, but from the thrall of oneself. Artistically, Menken’s music soars as proudly as ever, the production values are unmatched, the performers complement each other smoothly, and Nicholaw’s creative style has retained all its sheen – like an endless diamond sky. When Scott, as the Genie, exclaims, “Thank you, Los Angeles!”, the feeling is unquestionably mutual.
For more information about seeing Disney’s “Aladdin” at the Pantages Theatre, please visit hollywoodpantages.com/events/detail/disneysaladdin