Flash- and joke-filled ‘Aladdin’ sweeps romance under the carpet

Aladdin
A typically colorful scene from the touring production of Aladdin, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (Photos by Deen van Meer)

By Richard Ades

Great songs, fine singing and dancing, nifty special effects, beautiful scenery: What else could you ask from a Broadway musical?

Well, other than a story you actually care about. Aladdin falls short in that respect, especially compared to other Disney musicals like The Lion King or Beauty and the Beast. But for most folks who caught the touring show Thursday at the Ohio Theatre, the production’s other attributes were more than enough.

Based on the 1992 animated film and boasting catchy Alan Menken tunes such as “Friend Like Me” and “Whole New World,” Aladdin arrived on Broadway in 2014. There it was nominated for five Tony Awards but won only for James Monroe Iglehart’s performance in the showiest role, the Genie.

In the touring production, much of the attention also is grabbed by the Genie portrayer, Michael James Scott, who leaves no stone unturned in his quest for laughter and applause. Equally committed, if less showy, performances are turned in by other cast members.

Clinton Greenspan leaps agilely and sings sweetly as poverty-stricken thief Aladdin, while Lissa DeGuzman gives Princess Jasmine a feisty, no-nonsense personality. (Is it just me, or does she remind you of SNL’s Melissa Villasenor?) As her father’s scheming adviser, Jafar, and his henchman, Iago, Jonathan Weir and Jay Paranada excel in comic villainy.

The cast plies its trade against a backdrop that is often eye-poppingly gorgeous thanks to Bob Crowley’s scenery and Natasha Katz’s lighting. Particularly spectacular is the gold- and jewel-encrusted cave where an important plot development takes place.

Speaking of the plot, it all stems from Jasmine’s refusal to accept a marriage proposal from a suitably royal suitor despite pressure from her aging father, the Sultan (Jerald Vincent). Jafar hopes to take advantage of her reluctance and the Sultan’s resulting lack of a successor by usurping the throne himself. But his plans go astray when he accidentally connects Aladdin with the Genie, who can grant the young thief anything he desires. And what he desires most is the beautiful Jasmine.

Though other Disney fairy tales have succeeded in keeping the youngest viewers enthralled while offering enough emotional depth to satisfy their parents and older siblings, Aladdin remains stubbornly shallow. We’re supposed to care whether Jasmine ends up with the title character, but we don’t, maybe because we’re given no reason to think love won’t win out. She’s such a strong-willed individual, and the Sultan such a doting father, that we don’t seriously believe she’ll be forced to marry someone she doesn’t want.

As if to make up for the tale’s emotional flatness, director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw fills the production with colorful song-and-dance numbers marked by acrobatic moves with a vaguely Arabic flavor. On top of that, he and his cast tell the story in a relentlessly jokey manner that combines comic stereotypes with winking nods to popular culture and even to other Disney musicals. The approach reaches its zenith when the Genie and multiple dancers perform “Friend Like Me,” a huge Act 1 production number that, following a recent musical trend, is actually a parody of classic Broadway production numbers.

Needless to say, all the jokes, cultural references and parodies make it even harder to take Aladdin and Jasmine’s tale seriously. The only time the show allows us to care about their incipient romance is during the Act 2 number “A Whole New World,” which sends the pair on a breathtaking magic-carpet ride among the stars. It’s a heartfelt, if short-lived, moment.

Say this for the touring show: It spares no effort or expense in its attempt to impress and entertain. If you can get past its emotional stinginess, you’ll likely feel it succeeds.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Aladdin through Nov. 4 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $34 to $99-plus. Contacts: 614-469-0939 (CAPA), 1-800-745-3000 (Ticketmaster), columbus.broadway.com or capa.com.

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Love of cartoons opens door to boy’s closed mind

Owen Suskind, whose struggle to reconnect with the world is the subject of Life, Animated.
Owen Suskind’s struggle to reconnect with the world is the subject of Life, Animated.

By Richard Ades

The first time we meet Owen Suskind, it’s in home movies that show him as a young boy playing with his father and brother and watching Mickey Mouse on TV. The second time we meet him, he’s a 20-something man muttering to himself in cartoon-like voices.

The connection between the child and the man is explained in Life, Animated, a documentary that is both uplifting and heartbreaking. Directed by 2010 Oscar winner Roger Ross Williams (Music by Prudence), it’s about a family’s struggle to connect with a son afflicted by severe autism.

According to Owen’s father, former Wall Street Journal reporter Ron Suskind, the first signs of trouble arose after his son turned 3. Though Owen had been developing as expected until then, he suddenly stopped communicating or learning new language, and he regularly had trouble sleeping.

Ron said he and his wife, Cornelia, tried to find out why, but it was like “looking for clues to a kidnapping.” The Owen they knew seemed to have disappeared.

The only bright spot in young Owen’s life was that he appeared to love watching the family’s VHS collection of Disney animated films. But it wasn’t until Ron made an astonishing discovery that this proved to be the key that would unlock the door to his son’s private world.

One day, in a desperate attempt to reopen communications with Owen, Ron greeted him with a squawking impersonation of Iago, the parrot from Aladdin. To his surprise, Owen responded with lines from the movie. The father soon realized that Owen had memorized not just Aladdin but all the Disney flicks, a fact he used to open up more channels of communication.

Though Life, Animated is about a man mesmerized by Disney tales, don’t expect it to follow a simple path to a Disney-like happy ending. The documentary frankly shows the ups and downs Owen encounters as his family tries to push him toward leading a full, independent adult life.

Romance is a particularly difficult problem. Even though Owen begins hanging out with a young woman he considers his girlfriend, he has no idea what a romantic relationship entails. “Disney doesn’t help with sex,” notes his concerned brother, ironically named Walt.

The film uses original animation to bring to life the characters Owen has imagined on his own.
The film uses original animation to bring to life the characters Owen has imagined on his own.

Helping director Williams tell this fascinating story are animators Mathieu Batard and Olivier Lescot and animation producer Philippe Sonrier, who bring to life the cartoon characters and dramas Owen imagines on his own. A couple of celebrity voice actors also show up in a surprise visit to a class Owen organizes for people who share his challenges.

If the movie has one element that may rub some the wrong way, it’s that the background music is occasionally on the manipulative side. Mostly, though, it’s as on target as the rest of this unique and heartwarming film.

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Life, Animated (rated PG) opens Friday (July 29) at the Gateway Film Center, 1550 N. High St., Columbus. For tickets and show times, visit gatewayfilmcenter.org.