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.

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.

Shoemaker sets out to save cross-dressers’ soles

The touring cast of Kinky Boots, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (photo by Matthew Murphy)
The touring cast of Kinky Boots, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (photo by Matthew Murphy)

By Richard Ades

I have to admit I went into Kinky Boots with a small chip on my shoulder.

In 2013, Matilda the Musical was expected to win a slew of Tony Awards, including for best musical. Instead, despite having opened to mixed reviews, Kinky Boots danced away with the top prize.

Full disclosure: I love Matilda the Musical. Seeing it was my favorite Broadway experience since Memphis. After Kinky Boots beat out the magical lass for the top prize and others, including Cyndi Lauper’s win for best score, I decided it had better be damn good.

Anyway, that was my mindset going into the Ohio Theatre on Tuesday night, which helps to explain why it took me a while to warm up to the show. Eventually, though, I came around.

Adapted by Harvey Fierstein from a 2005 movie, Kinky Boots is the story of Charlie (Steven Booth), a young Englishman who’s preparing to move to London with his fiancée, Nicola (Charissa Hogeland). In the process, he’s leaving behind the family business, a Northampton shoe factory run by his father (Tom Souhrada).

No sooner does Charlie get to London, however, than he learns his father has died. As if that weren’t enough bad news, he then realizes the company is going broke because it can’t compete in a market flooded with cheap, foreign-made shoes.

Enter Lola (Kyle Taylor Parker), a drag performer whose chief problem seems to be her inability to find high-heeled boots strong enough to support her male frame. Thanks to a suggestion from factory worker Lauren (Lindsay Nicole Chambers), Charlie realizes the only way to save the business—along with the jobs of the people he grew up with—is to find a niche need and fill it. His solution: Start making sturdy, yet stylish, footwear for the discriminating cross-dresser.

I said I eventually came around on Kinky Boots, but that doesn’t mean I love everything about it. You don’t have to be an expert on Morse code to recognize that Fierstein is telegraphing plot points well in advance, including the fate of Charlie’s relationship with the sour-tempered Nicola. And things get even more transparent in the second act, when Fierstein manufactures conflicts by having Charlie act in totally unconvincing ways.

The show’s salvation is Lauper’s genre-hopping score, which earns its Tony. A couple of the songs strike me as derivative, but they’re generally enjoyable and catchy.

Of course, any production rises or falls on the strength of its cast, and this touring show’s cast acts, sings and dances delightfully under the guidance of director/choreographer Jerry Mitchell. At the top of the bill, Booth is relatable as Charlie, while Parker is nothing short of amazing as the sassy, yet soulful, Lola.

Some early critics complained that the show loses steam in the second act, but I actually like it better because it gives Lola a chance to grow into something beyond a flashy stereotype. Yes, Lola’s production numbers with her lascivious “Angels” are fun, but Parker’s best moment comes when Lola slows down for the Act 2 lament Hold Me in Your Heart. It’s a true show stopper.

Visually, the show is equally impressive, thanks to Gregg Barnes’s costumes, Kenneth Posner’s lighting and David Rockwell’s glorious scenery.

The one place the touring show could stand improvement is in the area of the sound. On opening night, whole lines of dialogue and lyrics were indecipherable. The English accents were partially to blame, but poor mixing seemed to be the main culprit. Hopefully, that problem will be fixed as the week goes on.

Did Kinky Books deserve to steal the top Tony away from Matilda? Not in my book. But it does give musical-loving theatergoers a colorful, toe-tapping good time.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Kinky Boots Oct. 6-11 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, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $33-$118. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

Punk rock comes to the Palace

By Richard Ades

American Idiot begins with its title song, which tries to explain the alienation of the trio of teens at the show’s center by describing the mindset of post-9/11 America.

Johnny (Alex Nee, left) and the drug-pushing St. Jimmy (Trent Saunders) perform a number from American Idiot (photo by John Daughtry)
Johnny (Alex Nee, left) and the drug-pushing St. Jimmy (Trent Saunders) perform a number from American Idiot (photo by John Daughtry)

Unless you’re familiar with the Green Day concept album that inspired the show, however, you’ll probably miss the song’s point. It’s blasted out at a volume that renders most of the lyrics indecipherable.

But don’t worry. The time and setting aren’t all that important anyway. Johnny, Will and Tunny feel alienated for reasons that have more to do with youthful angst than with politics. If they’d lived in the 1950s, they would have been just as mad, though they probably would have expressed that anger with rockabilly rather than punk rock.

Another reason not to worry is that the bombastic opening eventually gives way to calmer songs that are easier to understand and relate to. Many of them are both catchy and beautiful, making them the show’s chief draw.

They’re certainly more rewarding than the plot, which sees the teens living up to the show’s title by making a series of moves that are as ill-conceived as they are generic.

Johnny (Alex Nee) moves to the big city and falls for the lusty Whatsername (Alyssa DiPalma), then undermines the relationship by becoming addicted to hard drugs under the tutelage of the charismatic St. Jimmy (Trent Saunders). Tunny (Thomas Hettrick) accompanies Johnny to the city but—apparently because he thinks women can’t resist a man in uniform—joins the Army just in time to get sent to Iraq.

Will wants to join his friends in the city, but he’s forced to stay behind after girlfriend Heather (Kennedy Caughell) announces she’s pregnant. Rather than embrace his new family, he tries to drown his disappointment in drink and drugs.

Nee, DiPalma and Saunders are particularly impressive, but all of the performers are committed and sport fine singing voices. The latter is important because this is a sung-through musical other than a few words of narration that Johnny delivers in the form of letters to his mother.

Michael Mayer directs the show, whose book he co-wrote with Green Bay’s Billie Joe Armstrong. Mayer also directed the 2010-11 Broadway version, which was up for the Tony for Best Musical but won only for scenic design and lighting.

Those elements are equally award-wordy in the touring production. Christine Jones’s stark scenery is highlighted by more than two dozen TV sets built into the walls. Kevin Adams’s lighting includes such dazzling special effects as cascades of ascending shadows.

Steven Hoggett’s choreography is characterized by violent head-banging. It turns graceful only when a wire-suspended Hettrick and Jenna Rubaii perform acrobatic moves several yards above the stage in Extraordinary Girl.

Though American Idiot is being presented as part of the Broadway in Columbus series, it’s hardly typical of the touring shows the group normally brings to town. Besides the loud rock and drug use, it includes an explicit sex scene. Add the generic characters and plot, and it’s easy to understand why several older patrons walked out during Tuesday’s opening-night performance.

Devotees of traditional musicals might feel as alienated as its leading characters, but those familiar with Green Day, punk rock and youthful angst will feel right at home.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present American Idiot through Sunday (March 24) at the Palace Theatre, 34 W. Broad St. Show times are 8 p.m. through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes. Tickets are $28-$78. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.