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.