Entertainment » Theatre

Disney's Aladdin

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Jul 12, 2018
Michael James Scott (Genie) and cast perform 'Friend Like Me' in 'Disney's Aladdin'
Michael James Scott (Genie) and cast perform 'Friend Like Me' in 'Disney's Aladdin'  (Source:Deen van Meer)

Broadway in Boston brings the smash musical "Aladdin" to the Boston Opera House through August 5. It's a sizzling spectacle that will thrill audiences.

The story is simplicity itself: A good-hearted thief and a royal princess fall in love; an impossible romance is given an unlikely chance to succeed, thanks to a blend of moxie and magic; a bad guy plots the overthrow of a just ruler in order to satisfy his own lust for power. It sounds like the 1924 silent epic "The Thief of Bagdad," by Douglas Fairbanks, and that's because it is the 1924 silent epic "The Thief of Bagdad," by Douglas Fairbanks. But it's also the 1992 Disney animated classic "Aladdin," directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, and written by Clements and Musker and a host of others. Now, in this vivacious and thrilling stage production, it's also an updated, unstoppable live version of that animated favorite.

The driving spark and definitive magic of the animated movie had to be the wildly free-form work of Robin Williams, who voiced the character of Genie. Any stage version of the film would have to tread carefully here; Williams' shitck and style might be easy to imitate, but it would be hard, if not impossible, to master or put across with the authoritative snap and energy of the real thing.

Clinton Greenspan (Aladdin) & Isabelle McCalla (Jasmine)  (Source:Deen van Meer)

Die hard fans of the film, never fear: Michael James Scott, who plays Genie, is tasked with much of the same dialogue as Williams delivered, but the style and affect is completely different. Scott is more Alex Newell than Robin Williams, and that's to the show's overall benefit because the design and direction lends a campy, rainbow flag gloss to the stage version that makes "Disney's Aladdin" look and feel like a celebratory confection of everything America supposedly believes in. If RuPaul herself came swaggering in during a big production number, she would be right at home.

Take Aladdin himself (played here by Clinton Greenspan): He's a thief, yes, but he's also generous, cheerful, and industrious. "Gotta eat to live, gotta steal to eat," he sings, in one of the signature tunes imported from the movie (music by Alan Menkin; lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, and Chad Beguelin). Hunger is a hard and unforgiving fact, and its scourge is the sort of impossible situation that makes real life a desperate struggle for poor people the world over. If given a chance, Aladdin would rather not steal; he simply has no other choice.

That's what makes him a "diamond in the rough," and the quality of his character means that he's the one and only candidate in the entire city of Agrabah to enter an enchanted cave and fetch out a magical lantern. It's also what allows him, later in the play - once he has left his impoverished roots behind and found his way to wealth and power - to remember his better angels, keep his promises, and - last, but not least - stay true to his trio of buddies, Babkak (Zach Bengal), Omar (Philippe Arroyo), and Kassim (Jed Feder). (The guys are so tight-knit they warrant their own dance number.)

Michael James Scott (Genie)  (Source:Deen van Meer)

Or consider the princess Jasmine (Isabelle McCalla). She's the strong, determined daughter of the Sultan (Jerald Vincent) who doesn't see why she has to consent to marry some random royal guy she doesn't like just because he's from the same socioeconomic class as herself. Jasmine values self-determination and choice; you just know how she'd weigh in on the social questions of today. (In ancient Perisa, of course, she'd be considered a radical and a heretic - but that's what we mean when we talk about America's "experiment" in democracy.)

With a change of costume and setting, Aladdin and Jasmine could be the stars of a John Cougar Mellencamp song; they are, in essence, "two American kids doing the best they can." That's why we root for them, and that, in a nutshell, is what makes the play's story so familiar and so fitting for what we might think of as belonging to the classic American musical genre.

Any Disney project is going to have a villain that's as cartoonish as its heroes (and who usually sports a British, or faux-British, accent). In this case it's the Grand Vizier, Jafar (Jonathan Weir); dressed in black, reveling in his own dark machinations, toting a serpent cane that would have fit perfectly into a Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epic, and locked in a co-dependent relationship with his lackey, Iago (Jay Paranada), Jafar is the pinnacle of camp and the dark side of the production's candy-colored, buttercream sensibilities.

But it's Genie - a tornado of patter, glitter, style, and knowing anachronisms - that drives the show. This production is chock-full of startling special effects that bedazzle the eye (sometimes literally), and it has to be in order to keep up with Scott's performance. The role, and its delivery, is truly magical; where else could you find such a perfect blend of zippily weightless fantasy and, ahem, realness?

  (Source:Deen van Meer)

Every bit of the show's design aims for over the top, and then gleefully overshoots. From the choreography by director Casey Nicholaw to Gregg Barnes' plethora of brightly colored costumes to the super-saturated hues of Natasha Katz's lighting design, this is a show intended to wake up your inner child and get her, or him, to shed the skin of dreary adulthood for a couple of hours. What a relief, and what an enchantment!

Still, there's plenty of room in the show for wry commentary that we can appreciate on a grown-up level. When Jasmine drops a line about women ruling the land, and how great that would be, there's a slight pause in the show's rhythm, an invitation to applaud - and applause is readily forthcoming. We know what she's saying and where she's coming from. We know it, and we don't get bogged down, but rather zip right on. This is a toboggan ride of a show, and whirling dervishes take the hindmost!

"Disney's Aladdin" continues through Aug. 5 at the Boston Opera House. For tickets and more information, go to www.BroadwayInBoston.com

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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