The Detroit Opera House erupted in jubilant applause as soon as music director Faith Seetoo and her orchestra produced the first notes of Alan Menken’s iconic score: “Aladdin.” That isn't just a testament to the Disney brand (because I’ve seen Disney productions where the audiences were less than enthusiastic), it’s a testament to “Aladdin.” Arguably one of Disney's most memorable animated classics, the franchise has accrued a pop culture status that has only risen in the aftermath of the death of Robin Williams (who voiced the Genie in the 1992 gem), and the forthcoming film arriving this Summer will star Will Smith in the iconic role.
For now, Michigan audiences have a chance to indulge in a delightful evening, or mid-afternoon diversion as the Broadway tour is making its Michigan premiere. The show - like the movie - is hip, exceptionally light on its feet, and puts your senses under a magic spell. Gorgeous sets are flown in on a dime (just wait till you see the Cave of Wonders), multiple costume changes happen in seconds, and - with the help of stage illusionist Jim Steinmeyer - this production literally has a flying carpet - and no, it’s not as seamless or as easy to figure out as you’d might expect.
No question, production designer Bob Crowley and scenic designer Ken Travis have wasted no Disney expense, because the show looks terrific, and with visually eye-popping productions like "Kinky Boots" and "Tuck Everlasting" in his rep, you can rest assured Gregg Barnes glossy and sequined costumes look like a million bucks. The issues with the stage production of “Aladdin” are more on the narrative aspect as opposed to technical ones. The production itself is gorgeous, but playwright Chad Beguelin has a tendency to stay a touch too true to the Disney formula, and it doesn't land as strong on stage as on screen.
Originally directed on Broadway by the Steven Spielberg of contemporary musical theatre, Casey Nicholaw (whose credits include “The Book of Mormon,” “Something Rotten,” and “Mean Girls”) - “Aladdin” throws a good portion of the characters into their normal routine. Aladdin (Clinton Greenspan - offering a lovable and genuine performance) is still the spunky, wisecracking, street rat hustling and scavenging for his next meal when he becomes entangled in a scheme by the ruthless Jafar (the brilliant Jonathan Weir) and his pesky (and grudgingly annoying) sidekick Iago (Jay Paranda) who, I’m sorry to say, could be one of the most useless characters in a staged musical. No beef with Paranda's portrayal, but as a character, his writing slowly tested my patience.
Either way, you likely know the drill: Aladdin is the Diamond in the Rough, thus making him the only viable candidate to enter the enchanted Cave of Wonders and retrieve a priceless lamp whose truths remain unearthed. But hardcore Disneyphiles know better, and before you can sing “Arabian Nights,” the big-bad Genie (Michael James Scott) explodes on the scene, quickly removing any doubt you might’ve had about someone else other than Williams stepping into the role.
Considering Scott is following in the footsteps of a performer that will never be matched in style, he does a magical job of making the role his own and not leaning towards imitation. (It’s the same thing with James Earl Jones and “The Lion King” - who else could voice Mufasa?). Spouting off references from “Black Panther” and Oprah (“YOU get a wish!”) Scott seems to exhibit his greatest strengths on the fly and runs with the material. He’s flamboyantly extra, and even though all the zingers don’t land as they should (trial and error I can imagine) by the end of the showstopper “Friend Like Me” - you could see the sweat glistening off each actor's face - being granted three wishes never looked so good.
Elsewhere in the vast kingdom of Agrabah, Princess Jasmine (Lissa Deguzman - strong and purposeful) - daughter to the bubbly Sultan (Jerald Vincent) - is being courted for marriages by a wide array of suitors and princes. Accompanied by his entourage of street dwellers: Babkak (Zach Bencal), Omar (Philippe Arroyo), and Kassim (Jed Feder) - (basically serving as three human counterparts to Aladdin's pet monkey Abu who has been removed from the production) - the song “Prince Ali” explodes vividly to life and rocks the stage.
Being one of the original Disney princesses to stand her ground and, you know, actually think for herself, Deguzman’s Jasmine is a welcome and fresh perspective on the character, whose motives and justifications have aged exceptionally (she wants to marry who she wants, and perhaps one day rule) - those ideals mesh well on stage with Greenspan’s charismatic portrayal of Aladdin. Truthfully speaking, this is their show and when I was watching two pros soaring on a flying carpet singing “A Whole New World” through the night sky, it was pure Disney magic.
Sure “Aladdin” is a bit cartoonish (doesn’t it have to be?) and the need to flesh out certain characters (sorry Iago) doesn’t always feel like a slam dunk, but the rousing dance sequences, character motivations, and timeless good vs. evil plot device is what makes this show tick. The overall production goes down very smoothly (minus a few sound issues during my performance) further proving the mouse-house knows the logistics of live theatre. Love em’ or hate em’ they know how to dazzle the senses and fill your mind with wonder. Shiny, simmering, and splendid.
IF YOU GO:
Aladdin continues its run through January 13th at The Detroit Opera House with tickets starting at $25 and can be purchased online at www.BroadwayinDetroit.com or www.TicketMaster.com and by phone 800-982-2728