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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What do ‘Waitress’ and ‘The Band’s Visit’ have in common?

Desi Oakley, Charity Angel Dawson and Lenne Klingaman (from left) in the Broadway in Columbus presentation of Waitress (photo by Joan Marcus)

By Richard Ades

The transition from the screen to the stage is a tricky one. There have been a few triumphs, but the results are more often disappointing.

The latest film adaptation is The Band’s Visit, a musical that recently moved to Broadway after a successful off-Broadway run. Tony Shalhoub (TV’s Monk) and Katrina Lenk lead a uniformly strong cast, and David Cromer’s sensitive direction captures the cross-cultural discomfort that develops when an Egyptian police band unexpectedly shows up in a remote Israeli village. On top of that, David Yazbek’s music and lyrics are delightful.

Despite the musical’s strengths, I left the Ethel Barrymore Theatre feeling less satisfied than I was after seeing the 2007 Israeli movie on which it’s based. The stage production attempts to create dramatic arcs by playing up several elements of the story, especially the flirtation that Lenk’s restaurant owner directs toward Shalhoub’s uptight band director. It does this at the expense of the little interactions that, in the film, mark the Israelis and the Egyptians as fellow travelers on the sad, lonely journey known as life. The stage show is good, but it lacks its predecessor’s understated charm.

Would I have liked the show more if I hadn’t seen the film? Possibly. So maybe it’s good that I didn’t catch another 2007 movie, Waitress, before seeing its musical adaptation this week at the Ohio Theatre. The late Adrienne Shelly’s flick has been faulted for diluting a story of female empowerment with broad humor, and the stage production likely broadens the humor even more.

The heroine is Jenna (the relatable Desi Oakley), a small-town waitress married to a control freak named Earl (the effectively hateful Nick Bailey). Jenna is desperate to escape from her loveless marriage, but her hopes are dashed when she learns she’s pregnant.

Ironically, her pregnancy leads her to Dr. Pomatter (Bryan Fenkart), a gynecologist who instantly falls for both her and the stellar pies she concocts for the restaurant. Taken off guard by the unfamiliar experience of being appreciated for who she is, Jenna begins an affair with the kind, though married, doctor. Meanwhile, she sets her sights on a pie-making contest whose prize money could bankroll a new life for her and her future child.

As long as the focus stays on Jenna and her miserable situation, Waitress serves as a sobering look at the serious issue of spousal abuse. However, book writer Jessie Nelson and director Diane Paulus seem determined to keep the crowds pleased by devoting much of the show’s time and energy to broad comedy populated by familiar stereotypes.

Jenna’s fellow waitresses are Becky (Charity Angel Dawson) and Dawn (Lenne Klingaman). The former is sassy (i.e., she’s black), and the latter is shy and nerdy (i.e., she wears glasses). In subplots that largely overshadow the main plot, Becky launches into an affair of her own, while Dawn attempts to end her social isolation by running a personal ad. This attracts the attention of Ogie, an oddball exuberantly played by Jeremy Morse with overtones of Paul Lynde and Henry Gibson, the poet from TV’s Laugh-In. Ogie’s comic solo number, Never Ever Getting Rid of Me, becomes the closest thing the musical has to a show stopper.

Roaming even further from Jenna’s homefront predicament, the proceedings nearly turn into a sex farce when all three waitresses and their respective beaus simultaneously engage in onstage canoodling. Diner manager Cal (Ryan G. Dunkin) and elderly owner Joe (Larry Marshall) also contribute to the show’s sexual preoccupation, though the latter does so only by sharing his erotic memories.

The mood finally turns sober again just in time for Jenna’s biggest and saddest solo, She Used to Be Mine, sung with the kind of strong and committed voice Oakley brings to all of her songs. In fact, composer/lyricist Sara Bareilles’s tunes are well served by the entire cast and by conductor/pianist Jenny Cartney and her onstage band. But none of this makes up for the fact that the pop/country melodies are mostly forgettable and the lyrics seldom rise to the level of deep poetry.

Despite its inconsistencies and weaknesses, Waitress remains on Broadway after a year and a half, suggesting that it satisfies patrons’ theatrical taste buds. And it did seem to make many people happy at the Ohio on Tuesday, despite a technical snafu that delayed the show long enough to turn it into a 3½-hour ordeal.

So if the idea of spicing up a serious social issue with broad comedy doesn’t give you acid reflux, you, too, may find Waitress to your liking.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Waitress through Sunday (Nov. 12) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $34-$115. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Visual and vocal pizazz make ‘Bodyguard’ a nostalgic treat

Deborah Cox as Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard (Photos by Joan Marcus)
Deborah Cox as Rachel Marron in The Bodyguard (Photos by Joan Marcus)

By Richard Ades

I thought I’d seen flashy theatrical shows in the past, but I now realize I was mistaken. When it comes to flashiness, The Bodyguard is in a class by itself.

A stage remake of the 1992 flick starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston, the musical literally starts off with a bang—that is, a gunshot. After stunning viewers into rapt attention, director Thea Sharrock then holds their attention with flashy production numbers (choreographed by Karen Bruce), flashy sets and costumes (designed by Tim Hatley), flashy lighting (designed by Mark Henderson) and, most importantly of all, flashy singing. The latter is mostly provided by Deborah Cox, who does an expert job of filling in for the late and lamented Houston.

Mind you, I don’t mean to give the impression that The Bodyguard is nothing but flash. What makes the romantic thriller palatable and even enjoyable is that Sharrock knows the value of restraint. The thrills are meted out in a judicious manner that makes them all the more exciting when they arrive. That goes for the dramatic thrills, sometimes accompanied by a pleasantly startling jolt, but it particularly goes for the musical thrills.

One of the most entertaining scenes takes place in a karaoke club where disguised pop star Rachel Marron (Cox) has been persuaded to sing one of her own hit songs. After coyly understating the verse, setting off an “Is it her or isn’t it her?” chatter among a trio of college-age fans, she charges into the chorus with all the vocal power at her command. The fans squeal in delight, as does much of the audience.

Much later, Cox’s Rachel pulls off a similar trick with the Houston hit we all came to hear, I Will Always Love You. She underplays the first few verses, making us fear we’ll have to go back to the movie to hear it sung right. Then, to everyone’s delight, both Cox and director Sharrock pull out all the stops.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. There’s a love story to get through before we arrive at that spectacular moment. It’s not a very interesting love story, but the leads’ likable and unassuming performances make it diverting enough to tide us over between songs.

Rachel (Deborah Cox) and bodyguard Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) decide to give romance a try.
Rachel (Deborah Cox) and bodyguard Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) decide to give romance a try.

When Rachel’s life is threatened by a deranged stalker (Jorge Paniagua), her handlers hire bodyguard Frank Farmer (Judson Mills) to keep her safe. The two initially rub each other the wrong way, mostly because Rachel chafes against the cautious restrictions Frank tries to institute. But eventually they fall for each other and start, you know, rubbing each other the right way—until Frank realizes that their affair is compromising his ability to do his job.

Besides Rachel and Frank, the only relatable characters are Rachel’s sister, Nikki (Jasmin Richardson), and son, Fletcher (Douglas Baldeo). As Fletcher, Baldeo (replaced by Kevelin B. Jones III at alternate performances) is simply adorable. As the jealous Nikki, an aspiring singer who’s had to live her life in her famous sibling’s shadow, Richardson showcases her wide vocal range and dramatic style on the gorgeous solo Saving All My Love. (Note: Richardson will play Rachel at the Saturday matinee and Sunday evening performances.)

Supporting characters include Rachel’s press agent, Sy (Jonathan Hadley), and manager, Bill (Charles Gray), but other than Sy’s pushiness, neither is given much of a personality.

First performed in London’s West End in 2012 and featuring a book by Alexander Dinelaris, the musical simplifies the 1992 movie’s plot. No doubt, this was done to make it easier to stage, but the main motivation was probably to leave more room for the Whitney Houston songs that were the flick’s most timeless attributes.

With a star who approximates Houston’s vocal power and a production flashy enough to make up for its dramatic shortcomings, The Bodyguard should please fans of the movie and just about everyone else.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present The Bodyguard through Sunday (Feb. 19) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $34-$99. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, columbus.broadway.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Staged ‘Dirty Dancing’ best seen through nostalgia-tinted glasses

Baby (Rachel Boone) and Johnny (Christopher) share a few steps in the national tour of Dirty Dancing, presented by Broadway in Columbus (photo by Matthew Murphy)
Baby (Rachel Boone) and Johnny (Christopher Tierney) practice their moves in the national tour of Dirty Dancing, presented by Broadway in Columbus (photo by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

If you’re a fan of Dirty Dancing, you may not have the time of your life watching the stage show, but it’ll probably do until the next time you catch the 1987 flick.

Adapted by original screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein, the theatrical version tries to recapture the magic of the Jennifer Grey-Patrick Swayze romance but starts out with several strikes against it.

The first strike, of course, is that it features neither Jennifer Grey nor the late Patrick Swayze. In their place, the current touring show has Rachel Boone as Frances “Baby” Houseman, who’s vacationing with her family at a Catskills resort in 1963; and Christopher Tierney as Johnny Castle, the working-class dance instructor who attracts her attention.

Boone earns our sympathy and sometimes our laughs as the high-minded Baby, but Tierney’s Johnny is rather stiff except when he’s strutting his stuff on the dance floor. The two generate so little chemistry that when Baby finally announces her feelings for Johnny, it comes as a surprise even though we know that’s what the whole show is about.

It’s not entirely the actors’ fault. The second strike against the show is its episodic structure, especially in the hectic first act. Scenes fly by so fast that there’s no time for any emotional depth to develop.

Strike three is the quirky nature of the show, which can’t be called a real musical because it denies its stars the chance to express themselves in song. Most of the vocal numbers are delivered by minor characters such as Elizabeth (Adrienne Walker) and Billy Kostecki (Doug Carpenter). Both sing beautifully, but in the process they effectively put both Johnny and Baby in the corner.

All of this would have been enough to strike out the average show, but it hasn’t seemed to hurt Dirty Dancing, which has become a worldwide hit. The only explanation is that the show effectively, if imperfectly, rekindles viewers’ affection for the film.

The vintage pop tunes are back, along with several more that couldn’t be obtained for the film. They include Do You Love Me?, If You Were the Only Girl and the beloved finale, (I’ve Had) The Time of My Life. All are accompanied by a boisterous and brassy onstage (but usually hidden) band led by Alan J. Plado.

Also back are the early 1960s idealism and conflicts, including references to the Peace Corps and the civil rights struggle. It’s in this unstable atmosphere that Baby steps forward to help Penny (Jenny Winton), a friend of Johnny who has been impregnated by her well-to-do boyfriend. That sets up a misunderstanding that drives a wedge between Baby and her previously doting father (Mark Elliot Wilson).

Best of all, the dancing is back, courtesy of Michelle Lynch’s high-kicking and high-lifting choreography.

James Powell’s direction makes the most of the flashier moments, particularly when special effects are used to “show” Baby and Johnny practicing their dance moves in the middle of a forest, a field and even a lake. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s set designs and Jon Driscoll’s video and projection designs are the real stars here.

The supporting cast is all strong, with some of the funniest moments provided by Alex Scolari as Baby’s bratty and vocally challenged sister, Lisa.

The stage version of Dirty Dancing is hardly a classic, but it does have the advantage of reviving viewers’ memories of a classic. For many, that will be enough.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Dirty Dancing through May 22 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $58-$153. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, broadway.columbus.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

Motown musical is like sunshine on a cloudy day

Playing the Supremes in Motown the Musical are (from left): Krisha Marcano (Florence Ballard), Allison Semmes (Diana Ross) and Trisha Jeffrey (Mary Wilson) (photo by Joan Marcus)
Playing the Supremes in Motown the Musical are (from left): Krisha Marcano (Florence Ballard), Allison Semmes (Diana Ross) and Trisha Jeffrey (Mary Wilson) (photo by Joan Marcus)

By Richard Ades

The curtain rises to reveal facsimiles of old Motown groups singing snippets of their hits. From the beginning, it’s clear that Motown the Musical is all about the music.

It’s only after we’ve been treated to several smartly choreographed numbers that the show introduces to the man around whom it revolves: Berry Gordy Jr. (Chester Gregory), who founded Motown and now is threatening to boycott a 1983 celebration of the record label’s 25th anniversary. Why? Because he holds a grudge against the many artists who abandoned it over the years.

Based on Gordy’s 1994 autobiography, the musical then backs up and begins recounting his long career.

First seen as a young boy growing up in Detroit, Gordy quickly develops into a brash young man who pushes his way into the music business by writing hits for singer Jackie Wilson (Rashad Naylor). But he soon becomes fed up with seeing his songs relegated to the B-sides of lesser efforts, so Gordy founds his own label.

This, however, introduces a whole new problem. Mainstream radio stations refuse to play black music—then known as “race music”—despite Gordy’s assurances that his soul/pop tunes appeal to everyone. His claim is borne out by a Southern concert that attracts a multiracial audience, which police officers struggle to keep segregated into “white” and “colored” sections of the auditorium.

Of the two acts, Act 1 is more interesting due to scenes like this that reflect the tenor of the times. It ends in the 1960s, a decade marked by hopeful activism and soul-rending violence: the Vietnam War, the assassination of a president and a King, and Detroit’s 1967 riot. On a more personal level, it also covers Gordy’s blossoming relationship with Diana Ross (Allison Semmes), lead singer of the Supremes.

Act 2 covers Motown’s move to Los Angeles and Gordy’s determination to turn Ross into a solo artist and a movie star. Inevitably, though, it becomes the story of Gordy and Motown’s gradual decline, which makes it much like every other musical biography.

Along the way, we get a few tidbits of information about Gordy’s relationships with Motown’s various stars. While these are sometimes interesting, the details are sketchy and sometimes are left out entirely—as when Gordy and an aggrieved musical group take each other to court. In such cases, it’s hard to forget that we’re hearing only Gordy’s side of the story.

A young version of the Jackson 5 makes an appearance in Motown the Musical (photo by Joan Marcus)
A young version of the Jackson 5 makes an appearance in Motown the Musical (photo by Joan Marcus)

But whatever the show lacks in narrative depth, it makes up for by allowing us to bask in one Motown hit after another. ABC, Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Dancing in the Street: The nostalgic moments just keep on coming.

In the touring show, directed by Charles Randolph-Wright and accompanied by Darryl Archibald’s funky band, the songs are delivered with power and grace.

Semmes is great as Ross, seeming to gather strength as the night goes on. Though Gordy is known for promoting music rather than singing it, actor Gregory also comports himself well when he raises his voice in song. Semmes and Gregory’s duet You’re All I Need to Get By is one of the show’s sweetest numbers.

Also prominent are Jesse Nager as Smokey Robinson and the fleet-footed J.J. Batteast (alternating with Leon Outlaw Jr.) as a young Michael Jackson. On opening night, Nik Walker filled in for Jarran Muse as Marvin Gaye and displayed one of the most impressive voices of all.

David Korins’s scenery is spare, relying on Natasha Katz’s lighting to set the scene and mood. Esosa’s costume designs are period-appropriate and properly flashy.

Motown may not be a great musical, but it’s a musical with great music. Whether or not you’re old enough to remember the titular record label’s heyday, you’re sure to have fun.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Motown the Musical through Feb. 28 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St., Columbus. Show times are 7:30 p.m. through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $33-$113. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.