Issue:  Vol. 47 / No. 46 / 16 November 2017
 

Arabian nights

Theatre


Anthony Murphy plays the song-and-dance Genie in the hit Broadway musical "Aladdin" now at the Orpheum Theatre. Photo: Dean van Meer
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Unlike the animated feature on which it is based, no one in the stage musical "Aladdin" ever offers praise to Allah. As common a phrase as "Gracias a Dios," "Dieu merci," or "Thank God" in the years between the movie's release (1992) and the live adaptation arrival on Broadway (2011), even a throwaway thank you to Allah will yank most American audiences out of their safe space.

It's harder now to set a lighthearted entertainment in the Arab world without current realities imposing on images of an exotic civilization of silks and spices and mythical wonders. But for its stage "Aladdin," Disney has smoothed over most all ethnicity. It may still be hard to keep all thoughts of today's troubles out of a story set in this make-believe past, but the musical now at the Orpheum Theatre does all it can to distract us with baubles, bangles, beads, and a magic carpet. And all the abracadabra largely works.

A big demographic for "Aladdin," of course, is the kiddie crowd, but it creators pump out a steady stream of references aimed at grownups – especially those grownups who happily wear the title of theater queen. A few introductory notes of "Dance at the Gym" from "West Side Story," or the way the Genie introduces himself with Baby June's catchphrase from "Gypsy," may not connect with casual theatergoers, but blatant anachronisms invoking Oprah, "Dancing with the Stars," and for the local crowd, the Warriors basketball team, throw a much broader net.

In the movie, Robin Williams' largely adlibbed riffs for the Genie stole the show, and the stage Genie is a still scene-stealer with a persona that revels in fabulousness. Genies probably don't have a sexuality, but this dude from a lamp acts as gay as a goose. Based on, but amped up from, James Monroe Iglehart's already showy performance on Broadway, the tireless Anthony Murphy seems to be channeling the enormously flamboyant character that Titus Burgess plays on "The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt." And once again, it largely works.

The musical can flag a bit when Chad Beguelin's book is obliged to return to the love story between street-urchin Aladdin and headstrong princess Jasmine, but director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw helps animate the surrounding stories with splashy song-and-dance numbers that read like an encyclopedia of the American musical theater. The original film score by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice has been augmented with some new songs by Menken and Beguelin, and while there are several efforts at wink-free ballads, the best moments are when the music is unabashedly quoting everything from the Cotton Club to Disney's own "Beauty and the Beast."

It also helps that the touring cast is vocally rich, and we are fortunate to have the original Aladdin from Broadway now playing the part on the road. Adam Jacobs is indeed vocally blessed, and although now in his late 30s, he easily projects a winning impishness as the teenage Aladdin. Proto-feminist Princess Jasmine, the object of Aladdin's ardor, is brightly brought to life in Isabelle McCalla's strong performance. Jonathan Weir is deliciously evil as the royal council Jafar, and as his diminutive sidekick, Reggie De Leon scores consistent laughs with his take on a dimwitted yes-man. As Aladdin's buddies in bazaar misdemeanors, Zach Bencal, Phillipe Arroyo, and Mike Longo are like a cross between the Three Stooges and a song-and-dance trio from a Cole Porter musical.

And then there's the magic flying carpet on which Aladdin and Jasmine sing the score's hit song "A Whole New World." It's hard to concentrate on the song itself while trying to figure out what mechanism is keeping the carpet afloat. These steely eyes could not detect wires or other devices, and since it's always best not to know the tools behind a magic trick, don't tell anyone if you figure it out – that is, not until you drop me a note on the secret of the levitation.

 

"Aladdin" will run at the Orpheum Theatre through Jan. 7. Tickets are $55-$199. Call (888) 746-1799 or go to shnsf.com.

 






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