Chicago Theatre Review
A Bazaar of Dazzling Delights
Aladdin – Broadway in Chicago
The story of Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp is quite likely the most popular and best known of the many Middle Eastern stories included in the children’s classic, The Book of One Thousand and One Nights. It has, in turn, been adapted into other books, comic books, video games, television shows, plays, musicals, films (both live and animated) and artwork. Although the original tale was set in China, the story has been transferred to an Arabian setting in almost every incarnation.The beloved 1992 animated Disney film adaptation, starring the vocal talents of the late Robin Williams, as the Genie, became an instant classic. In 2014 the movie was brought to life on Broadway in a theatrical musical adaptation that not only featured all the favorite songs from the movie, it restored three of the tunes that had been cut from the score of the film. In addition, Alan Menken, who had originally teamed with lyricist Howard Ashman to create so much memorable music, worked this time around (following Ashman’s untimely death) with book writer Chad Beguelin and lyricist Tim Rice to craft four more songs for the stage. The result is a top-notch Disney musical that’s nothing short of spectacular. Fortunately for Chicago, the National Tour launches here in the Windy City; and tickets sales have been so incredible the show’s already extended its stay through September!
The story is a familiar one. The Genie begins narrating this tale, later emerging from inside the magic lamp. He tells of an orphan boy named Aladdin, who survives living on the streets by stealing food and conning the wandering vendors. Always one step ahead of the authorities, Aladdin is approached by the evil magician, Jafar, and his gofer, Iago, who persuade the boy to enter a mysterious cave in order to secure for them an old lamp. It’s been foretold to them that Aladdin is the only one who can gain entrance to this cavern festooned with gold and precious jewels. Once he’s inside the cave seals shut. However, thanks to three wishes granted to Aladdin by the Genie, the boy’s able to escape, become transformed into a handsome prince and woo the beautiful Princess Jasmine. Before Aladdin and Jasmine wed, however, much danger and many dilemmas have to be overcome. Important moral lessons are also learned and the story ends happily ever after.
This sensational, splashy extravaganza is a high-energy combination of likable characters, nonstop comedy, wild dance breaks and breathtaking fight choreography. The whole production, guided by the vision and expert staging of Broadway director and choreographer, Casey Nicholaw (Book of Mormon, Something Rotten), is powerful, eye-popping and entertaining. Perhaps even better than the original Broadway production, this touring version, overseen by Disney Theatricals’ Thomas Schumacher, has nicely settled into the Cadillac Palace for the next few months. The show seems freshly polished and more confident. It’s no longer a production that has to prove anything this time around. It’s here simply to provide entertainment, which it does in spades.
There are so many superb supporting artists involved with this Tour, and they have all outdone themselves. The musical direction by Brent-Alan Huffman is impeccable, as is his full-sounding 15 member pit orchestra. Bob Crowley has recreated the best features from his Broadway scenic design that employs stunning backdrops and gigantic, swiftly moving set pieces. The whole production is lavishly lit by Natasha Katz. Each character has a specific look, beautifully crafted through stunning costumes, by Gregg Barnes, hair design by Josh Marquette and character makeups created by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira. The intricate sword play and fight choreography is the work of J. Allen Suddeth, and all the magical illusions created by the Genie and Jafar are thanks to Jim Steinmeyer.
Nicholaw’s enormous cast features a 23-member ensemble of singing/dancing thespians. In addition, the leading roles are cast with some of musical theatre’s best artists. Adam Jacobs once again plays Aladdin, reprising the role he created on Broadway. This time around the actor, who’s been seen as Simba in “The Lion King” and Marius in “Les Miserables,” appears more comfortable as the street urchin-turned-prince. He’s still the impishly beguiling young man, a triple-threat who’s both easy on the eyes and ears. But there’s something in his carefree manner that makes him more relatable, this time around.
Isabelle McCalla, whose theatre credits are regional and collegiate, is perfectly cast as Princess Jasmine. Not only is this young actress picture book perfect as Aladdin’s royal romantic interest, this beautifully trained actress can sing, dance and act with the best of them. Ms. McCalla is equally feisty and full of spunk, but also honestly sincere, in her beliefs and goals. This debut into Broadway theatricals is supported by all her talent, composure and charisma.
Anthony Murphy steps into the all-demanding slippers of the Genie, for this National Tour. This bigger-than-life character seems like a easy fit for Mr. Murphy, and, from the very beginning, he holds the audience in the palm of his hand. Whether singing, dancing, cracking jokes, performing magic or simply being infectiously charming and personable, Murphy adapts perfectly to each magical moment. The earnest sincerity he brings to his plea for freedom from the lamp make this role especially poignant and three-dimensional.
Chicago’s own Jonathan Weir is deliciously wicked as the villainous Jafar. Reggie De Leon, as his sidekick Iago, is nasty, but also fabulously funny. If theatergoers close their eyes, they might think that Eric Cartman is visiting from “South Park.” JC Montgomery makes a commanding Sultan, Jasmine’s rule-abiding father. And Aladdin’s street urchin buddies come close to stealing this production. Philippe Arroyo, as Omar, Mike Longo, as Kassim and, especially, Zach Bencal, as Babkak are individually and collectively forces of nature. Their talents are multifaceted and whenever they’re onstage the electricity runs at high voltage. Especially wonderful is the boys’ challenging musical number, “High Adventure.”
Other exceptional musical numbers that particularly stand out include the exuberant, opening/closing, “Arabian Nights,” Aladdin’s gymnastic “One Jump Ahead,” the Genie’s phenomenal ten-minute homage to companionship “A Friend Like Me,” the jaw-dropping spectacle of “Prince Ali,” and the beautiful, gravity-defying magic carpet ride that envisions for Jasmine and Aladdin “A Whole New World.”
This wonderful National Tour, that was Broadway’s able successor to Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” is a musical bazaar featuring all kinds of dazzling delights. Casey Nicolaw’s traveling production isn’t a cut rate version of the original. It features all the color, spectacle and talent seen on the Great White Way. It’s a giant, energetic, kinetic musical that will entrance audiences of every age, presenting all the fairy tale magic of “A Whole New World.”
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented April 19-September 10 by Broadway in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago.
Tickets are available at all BIC box offices, at all Ticketmaster retail locations, by calling the Broadway in Chicago Ticket Line at 800-775-2000 or by going to www.BroadwayInChicago.com
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.