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Long-range ‘Aladdin’ tour opens in Chicago, and out pops a magical musical extravaganza

Submitted by on Apr 21, 2017 – 9:02 pm

The riotous color and pizzazz of Broadway is everywhere in the touring production of 'Aladdin.' (Deen van Meer)

Review: “Aladdin,” music by Alan Menken; lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin. Presented by Broadway in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace Theatre through Sept. 10. ★★★★
By Daniel Hautzinger

How do you translate the film magic of Disney to the musical theater? In the case of “Aladdin” – which has launched a North American tour at the Cadillac Palace with future stops in Minneapolis, Seattle, San Francisco and points further – you cram the stage with sets, people, smoke, glitter, explosions, magic tricks, gold, jokes and outsized personalities, and let nostalgia do the rest. Sometimes it dazzles, sometimes it falls flat, but mostly “Aladdin” is great fun, a magic carpet ride.

As the Genie, Anthony Murphy delivers a tour de force performance. (Deen van Meer)Adapted from the beloved 1992 animated film of the same name, which is in turn based on a story from the Arabic epic “One Thousand and One Nights,” the musical “Aladdin” tells the story of a poor street urchin who falls in love with a princess, finds a magic lamp containing a wish-granting genie, attempts to use it to woo said princess, then wins her love after stripping away the bells and whistles to reveal his true self.

In the case of the musical, which is directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, the bells and whistles are the heart of the show. It begins with the Genie, played by the fabulously entertaining and brilliantly over-the-top Anthony Murphy, conjuring up a colorful city out of the drab desert in “Arabian Nights.” After that initial magic trick, it’s all about the sorcery possible on-stage: innumerable costume changes, dazzling sets, people appearing out of nowhere, a floating carpet. (Scenic design is by Bob Crowley and costumes are by Gregg Barnes.)

It doesn’t always match the vertiginous glee of the movie. “One Jump Ahead,” in which Aladdin (the eager Adam Jacobs) flees the guards through a bustling bazaar, feels stuck and claustrophobic compared to the wheeling, roof-jumping animation. Bland choreography spiced up with vaguely Eastern gestures doesn’t help. And while the magic carpet ride of “A Whole New World” is impressive – how does it fly? – all the twinkling lights in the world can’t equal the thrill of actually watching the characters whoosh through the night sky.

Adam Jacobs and Isabelle McCalla portray the young lovers in 'Aladdin.' (Deen van Meer)But in the Genie’s “Friend Like Me,” the maximalism pays off, perhaps even topping the movie. Murphy delivers an absolutely stunning tour-de-force performance as he impersonates a flamboyant ’70s game show host, runs through a mini-medley of other Disney songs, and vivaciously caroms around the stage, all against a molten gold background. The entire musical is worth it just for this.

Another stand-out is “High Adventure,” a song cut from the original movie. (All music is by Alan Menken, who won two Academy Awards for the score, with some lyrics by Tim Rice and others by Howard Ashman.) Aladdin’s bumbling sidekicks Babkak (the hardworking Zach Bencal), Omar (the sweet Philippe Arroyo), and Kassim (the aggressive Mike Longo) are off to rescue their pal from the dungeon, and deliver visual gags, puns, and ridiculous dust-ups along the way (fight direction by J. Allen Suddeth).

As with the Genie’s madcap flair and the sidekicks’ ineptitude, the show is at its best when it’s humorous. Reggie de Leon is hilarious and essential as the fawning Iago, assistant to Jonathan Weir’s villainous Jafar.

Less successful is the actual love story. Isabelle McCalla isn’t given much to work with anyway as Princess Jasmine (this is a male-dominated show), and she can’t stand up to the wonderful Lea Salonga, who provided the singing voice in the movie. “A Whole New World,” which should be the standout of the show, comes up short compared to some of the lesser songs – never a good sign.

But you didn’t come to see a satisfying love story or an emotional masterpiece. You came to be transported by the magic of Disney, transmuted into the magic of the stage. And what’s more magical than an extravagant Broadway show?

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