“Aladdin” is far from the first animated Disney movie to be transformed into a live musical, and it certainly will not be the last. But of all the shows that have made the transition from celluloid acetate to stage, director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s production of the tale, (very loosely) lifted from “The Arabian Nights,” might just be the one that most closely matches the furious speed, crazy energy and zany exaggeration of the animated version.
When: Through Sept. 10
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph
Tickets: $44 – $153
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
Nicholaw, who directed the Broadway edition of the show, and has now overseen its first national touring production — which debuted Wednesday night at the Cadillac Palace Theatre — carries off this “motion capture” trick by delving into countless popular entertainment styles. Everything from vaudeville, to Busby Berkeley routines, to Borscht Belt humor, to Las Vegas floor shows, to earlier Broadway musicals (from “Fiddler on the Roof” and “A Chorus Line” to his own work on “Spamalot”), to television game shows and the good-vibe philosophy of Oprah and more is included in the mix.
Backed by what could easily be a budget balanced on the profits from a gargantuan oil well, Nicholaw also has tapped that genius of set design, Bob Crowley — a man who can make the most complex scenery move with a grandeur and effortlessness that boggles the mind. (You will see more of his brilliance when “An American in Paris” comes to Chicago this summer.) From the exquisite lacy grillwork of a palace gate, to the floor-to-rafters shimmering golden confines of the cave — evocative of Donald Trump’s New York penthouse — where Aladdin (Adam Jacobs) finds his lamp, the sheer opulence and playfulness of the eye candy that brings “Aladdin’s” world to life (all lavishly enhanced by Gregg Barnes’ costumes, Natasha Katz’s lighting and Jim Steinmeyer’s illusions), is a treat all its own.
The show’s score — by Alan Menken (with lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin) — is an equally eclectic pastiche, with several lovely ballads (Aladdin’s anthemic “Proud of Your Boy,” the dreamy “A Million Miles Away,” and “A Whole New World,” the music for the winningly realized magic carpet ride), exuberant buddy songs (including “Friend Like Me”), and a breathless opening spectacle (“Arabian Nights”), as well as an Act One finale that would have delighted no less an impresario than Florenz Ziegfeld.
Beguelin’s book — full of those comically dismissive drumbeats denoting lame but nonetheless funny one-liners — is a perfect fit for Nicholaw’s humor. And the actors and audience are happily complicit with the campy corniness of it all, as well as with the spirited proto-feminist rebelliousness of Aladdin’s true love, Princess Jasmine (Isabelle McCalla), and the always out-of-reach quest for freedom by the larger-than-life Genie (Anthony Murphy) who can grant other people’s wishes, but not his own.
No one would ever confuse this “Aladdin” with, say, Mary Zimmerman’s hauntingly poetic version of “The Arabian Nights.” Rather, it is the quintessential musical comedy/farce — and one of those over-the-top, amusement park-like family entertainments that knows exactly what buttons to push. That said, it is entirely true to its purpose and happily never takes itself too seriously, except when it comes to the high gloss polish of its craft.
The cast, which looks as if Nicholaw just strolled through a vast outdoor market and airlifted the entire crowd to the stage, has been perfectly chosen. Jacobs, reprising the role he originated on Broadway, has a warm voice and the sweet, handsome good looks of the mischievous street urchin with a big heart, a gift for getting in and out of trouble and a desire to make something of himself despite all his self-doubt. His mix of guile and guilelessness is nicely paired with McCalla’s naturalness (her voice blends well with Jacobs’). And Jasmine’s desire to marry for love rather than accept the choices of her father, the Sultan (JC Montgomery) — or accede to the power-grabbing plans of the evil and conniving Royal Vizier, Jafar (veteran Chicago actor Jonathan Weir in wonderfully poison snakelike form), earned loud applause from the audience.
As the all-important Genie, Murphy, a sort of African-American doppelganger of the great Zero Mostel, is a most buoyant dancer, and brings a jazzy Cab Calloway style blended with hipster/drama queen twist to the proceedings. Aladdin’s pals — Babkak (Zach Bencal). Omar (Philippe Arroyo) and Kassim (Mike Longo) — are sensational dancers, singers and physical comedians. Reggie De Leon is just opportunistic enough as the Vizier’s sidekick, Iago. And the enthusiastic ensemble could easily moonlight on “Dancing With the Stars.”
The show’s large orchestra, led by music director Brent-Alan Huffman, is exceptional, and if the audience wouldn’t take the overture to each act as an invitation to talk louder (rather than to listen) it might have realized this.
As no great fan of all things Disney (“The Lion King” musical being a singular exception), I confess I was happily bedazzled by this “Aladdin.” Yes, it is children’s theater on an extravagant budget. But it knowingly winks at the grownups just often enough to say: “Forget your troubles, come on get happy.”