Review: “Aladdin”

Adam Jacobs (Aladdin) and Isabelle McCalla (Jasmine) perform a scene from “Aladdin” now playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., through Sept. 10. – Deen van Meer


Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
When: through Sept. 10
Tickets: $44-$153
Phone: 800-775-2000

Theater Critic

The hit 2014 Disney musical “Aladdin” is launching its first North American tour with an unusually long stop in Chicago, and judging by the over-the-top opening night reception, it’s a good marketing decision.

Not surprisingly, this is an over-the-top extravaganza with enough big production numbers, bodacious staging, and bling to do Florenz Ziegfeld and Busby Berkeley proud. The handful of songs from the animated 1992 Disney movie–”Friend Like Me” and “A Whole New World” among them—have been augmented by a few that were cut from the film and some that are new courtesy of Alan Menken (music) and the late Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin (lyrics). Bob Crowley’s dazzling scenic design includes everything from a truly wonderful Cave of Wonders to a magicial magic flying carpet that glides through a starry sky seemingly without strings thanks to Natasha Katz’s lighting.

Gregg Barnes’ jewel-and-feather-laden costumes are so sumptuous, a special section of a press release ticks off their numerology: 2,039 fabrics and trims from all over the world, 337 costumes (100 more than any other Disney on Broadway show), 162 custom-made shoes. Jasmine’s wedding dress weighs 12 pounds because of all the crystal beading, and each man’s gold finale costume in “Friend Like Me” sports 8,644 Swarovski rhinestones. It’s a miracle they can move, much less dance.

But dance they do, thanks to a frenzy of choreography by Casey Nicholaw, who also directs. While the opening “Arabian Nights” number with the Genie (Anthony Murphy) introducing Agrabah, the bazaar, and the characters much like a Las Vegas act is an swirl of super-saturated color and activity, the real show stopper is “Friend Like Me” with Aladdin (hunky Adam Jacobs, originally in the Broadway production) finding the lamp in the cave and unleashing the Genie. Book writer Beguelin and the musical team replace Robin Williams’ tour de force of funny voices and celebrity send-ups in the movie with a showcase of insider-y riffs on Disney’s own “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid,” “West Side Story,” “A Chorus Line, “Fiddler on the Roof,” and so many more musicals, not to mention references to show biz subjects as diverse as Oprah Winfrey and “Let’s Make A Deal.” Murphy carries it off with aplomb and got a standing ovation on opening night, though the nagging little voice in my head had qualms about the stereotype of the big black gay guy—in sparkly blue harem suit no less—being carried so far, especially since he’s a slave to whomever has the lamp.

The “wink-wink” self-referential attitude and sarcasm (more than in other Disney shows) make “Aladdin” more fun for adults, though they undermine our ability to take anything seriously. The movie’s animated talking animals become people in Beguelin’s book—Aladdin’s monkey morphs into three bumbling buddies (Zach Bencal, Philippe Arroto, Mike Longo) and the evil Jafar’s (Chicago’s
Jonathan Weir) parrot is his rotund little sidekick Iago (Reggie De Leon)–but this remains essentially a cartoon for the stage. One sure proof is that Jafar is very much in the Captain Hook mold. We know from the start that he’s as ineffectual as his evil laugh is….well, silly Halloween evil.

The show also revels in the clichés of family values and self-actualization. Our hero, Aladdin, may be a “street rat” who steals, but he has a heart of gold, gives to those in need, and wants nothing more than to make his dead mother “Proud of Your Boy,” a song that enjoys a second reprise when he realizes getting rich and pretending to be a prince may not be the right way. Our heroine, Jasmine (Isabelle McCalla) is a spunky early proponent of female empowerment who wants to marry for love and choose her own husband rather than abiding by her father, the Sultan’s (JC Montgomery), demand that she pick a prince on his schedule. She even goes so far as to question why she has to get married at all (gasp!) and can’t rule in her own name. Naturally, dad comes around in the end. Indeed, everything ends well: Aladdin keeps his promise to the Genie, tells the truth, and gets the girl he loves; Jasmine gets him; the Sultan gets a worthy son-in-law (and updates the law of the land), and Jafar gets his just desserts.

But, in truth, the formulaic plot based on old fairy tales like “One Thousand and One Nights” hardly matters. No one expects Disney characters to have any real depth, and they don’t. What you should expect from “Aladdin” is decent acting and some awesome staging, singing, and dancing, and that’s pretty much what you get—from the moment the stunningly beautiful curtain goes up.