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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Musical mermaid yearns for love in Disney do-over

Diana Huey as Ariel in the touring production of The Little Mermaid, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (Photo by Mark & Tracy Photography)
Diana Huey as Ariel in the touring production of The Little Mermaid, presented by Broadway in Columbus and CAPA (Photos by Mark & Tracy Photography)

By Richard Ades

In mythic lore, mermaids were seductive creatures whose haunting voices lured sailors to their deaths. In modern times, The Little Mermaid lured Disney to one of its rare stumbles: a 2008 Broadway musical that failed to reclaim the magic of the company’s 1989 animated flick. The production garnered so-so reviews and sank a year and a half later.

Now, in a salvage operation consisting of a complete overhaul, Disney has relaunched the tale in a touring show that corrects most of the original production’s faults. It’s still no Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, but it’s a likable show that should keep parents and their young princes and princesses entertained.

Directed by Glenn Casale, the show uses cables and Kenneth Foy’s modest but attractive scenery to re-create the title character’s underwater world. The cables allow Ariel (Diana Huey) and others to “swim” through the domain ruled by her father, King Triton (Steve Blanchard). In scenes set at the surface or edge of the ocean, they allow her feathered friend Scuttle (Jamie Torcellini) to “fly.”

Though much has changed in the way the tale is told, the basic plot remains the same: Ariel is a teenage mermaid who has long been fascinated by humans despite her father’s claim that they’re barbarians who murdered her mother. Her fascination blossoms into a full-blown crush when she spies the seagoing Prince Eric (Matthew Kacergis) and subsequently saves his life when he falls overboard in a sudden storm.

Determined to meet the handsome Eric (who was unconscious when she pulled him from the sea), she makes a Faustian bargain with her evil aunt, Ursula (Jennifer Allen): Ariel will become human, but she will forfeit her soul unless she can persuade the prince to kiss her within three days. In addition, she will immediately lose her voice. That’s unfortunate for her, because Eric has fallen in love with the singing voice he heard before the storm and is determined to find and marry its owner.

Jennifer Allen as the villainous Ursula
Jennifer Allen as the villainous Ursula

Though The Little Mermaid lacks the emotional depth of the best Disney musicals, it partially makes up for it by throwing in a boatload of humor. Scuttle’s misuse of the English language is a bit forced, but Allen’s tentacled and self-amused Ursula is good for chuckles. Funnier still is a scene in which a French chef (Dane Stokinger) prepares a meal by smashing deceased sea creatures with various kitchen utensils.

As Ariel, Huey is most successful at portraying the humorous side of puppy (guppy?) love, especially after the mermaid transforms into a human. In the sea, she’s often overshadowed by the more colorful characters around her, but on land, she’s amusingly awkward as Ariel struggles to deal with an unfamiliar body and emotions. (It’s probably unnecessary to point out that the former mermaid’s struggles symbolically parallel what the average girl goes through during her teen years.)

Despite the emphasis on comedy, The Little Mermaid’s biggest strengths are the tunes penned by composer Alan Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman and Glenn Slater. Sebastian (Melvin Abston), a crab who becomes Ariel’s protector, makes the most of two popular holdovers from the movie: Under the Sea and Kiss the Girl. Huey’s lovely voice soars on Ariel solos such as Part of Your World, while Kacergis displays the production’s strongest pipes on Eric’s numbers Her Voice and One Step Closer.

One element of the plot could use further honing: The inevitable happy ending comes about thanks to a sudden development that left both me and my date scratching our heads. Otherwise, The Little Mermaid—both the title character and the revised telling of her story—offers an inspiring lesson on the value of perseverance.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Disney’s The Little Mermaid through Sunday (Feb. 5) 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, 30 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $29-$94. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000, broadway.columbus.com, capa.com or ticketmaster.com.

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.

Newspaper vendors go on strike in fleet-footed musical

Stephanie Styles and Dan DeLuca play Katherine and Jack in the touring production of Newsies (photo by Deen van Meer)
Stephanie Styles and Dan DeLuca play Katherine and Jack in the touring production of Newsies (photo by Deen van Meer)

By Richard Ades

It was kind of odd watching Newsies Tuesday night at the Ohio Theatre.

The history-based Disney musical is basically a salute to the power of unions. As a result, it was hard to see it without remembering that a blatantly anti-union law had been passed about four years ago right across the street at the Statehouse—or that the governor who signed the law was re-inaugurated on Monday night.

All of that might have made it hard to enjoy the musical except that the anti-union law was overwhelmingly repealed thanks to a 2011 referendum. Yes, the little guys do occasionally win out in real life, as they do in Disney musicals.

Based on a 1992 movie, which was based on the Newsboys Strike of 1899, Newsies is about what happens when New York City newspapers put the screws to the young lads who eke out a living by selling their products on the street.

Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard), owner of the New York World, is the first to raise the wholesale price his “newsies” must pay, thinking that’s the easiest way to offset recent losses. He doesn’t count on the tenacity of Jack Kelly (Dan DeLuca), the paper pushers’ unofficial leader.

Jack persuades Manhattan-based newsies to go on strike, then begins seeking support from their counterparts in other New York boroughs. Backing him up are his best friend, Crutchie (Zachary Sayle), along with newcomer Davey (Jacob Kemp) and his little brother, Les (played at alternate performances by Vincent Crocella and Anthony Rosenthal).

Fighting the newspapers is a nearly impossible task, but unexpected help comes in the form of Katherine (Stephanie Styles), a society reporter who wants to write about the labor struggle to prove she’s ready to graduate to hard news.

Newsies gained several Tony nominations after opening on Broadway in 2012, but it won only for its musical score and choreography. The touring version makes it clear that these remain the show’s prime strengths.

With music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Jack Feldman, the score has several enjoyable numbers. They include The World Will Know, a defiant anthem that captures the spirit (if not the power) of Les Miz’s Do You Hear the People Sing?, and Watch What Happens, an amusing expression of Katherine’s determination in the face of self-doubt.

True, a few of the other numbers are either less memorable or less relevant, coming off as mere filler. But a worse problem on opening night was a sound system that often failed to elevate the generally fine voices above the large band conducted by James Dodgson. It sometimes was hard to pick out the lyrics, particularly in the group numbers.

Working under Jeff Calhoun’s direction, DeLuca makes Jack such a caricature of New York swagger that he’s not as compelling a hero as he might be. (Also, he seemed to suffer from subpar amplification at Tuesday’s performance.) But Styles turns Katherine into a lovable heroine, while Blanchard’s Pulitzer is such an effectively loathsome villain that you can almost imagine him twirling his mustache.

The real stars, though, are choreographer Christopher Gattelli and his spinning, leaping and somersaulting dancers. Several numbers fill Tobin Ost’s set with amazing moments of motion.

The dancing makes this musical history lesson as impressive as it is inspiring.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Newsies through Sunday (Jan. 18) at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. 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. Tickets are $28-$98. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

Struggling to grow up in the Reagan era

Newsies demonstrates that 1890s young adults could accomplish quite a lot when they put their minds to it. Kenneth Lonergan’s This Is Our Youth, in contrast, shows that 1980s young adults could accomplish next to nothing, especially when their minds were clouded by drugs and immaturity.

It’s a savvy, clever portrait of an era and an age group that is entertaining until it gets bogged down in talkiness and redundancy, as it does during the second act.

In Warehouse Theatre Company’s production, the three actors give fully committed performances under Kristofer Green’s direction: John Connor as the self-absorbed Dennis, Jesse Massaro as the self-doubting Warren and Erin Mellon as the emotionally cautious Jessica.

Will Warren find a way to recover the $15,000 he stole from his hated father? And will he ever connect with Jessica, the oblivious object of his romantic obsession?

Such questions hold the viewers’ interest for a while, but Lonergan eventually overplays his dramatic cards. It’s a shame, because the actors do everything they can to keep us involved.

It’s a valiant effort, to say the least.

Warehouse Theatre Company will present This Is Our Youth at 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday (Jan. 15-17) at MadLab Theatre and Gallery, 227 N. Third St. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $22, $15 student rush. 614-371-5940 or warehousetheatre.org.