by Dan Zeff
July 13, 2009
The Chicago Shakespeare Theater recommends its exhilarating production of Aladdin for audiences five years old and up. Itís true that children will enjoy the color and fantasy of the show but the real benefactors will be the parents and grandparents who will really dig the hip humor and high energy choreography.
The production is the latest in the series of annual summer shows the CST aims at youngsters, and as usual it proves the point that theatrical magic happens when a famous childrenís story meets the resources and imagination of a world class theater.
Aladdin is an adaptation of the Disney hit animated film about the young Arabian Nights hero who defeats the wicked vizier and weds the sultanís daughter, with the aid of a big blue genie. The 1992 film featured terrific animation, a droll book, and an award winning score by Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, and Tim Rice.
The CST version is buoyed by an equally droll book by Jim Luigs that incorporates the major songs from the film. The CST hired a remarkably strong cast for a childrenís show by employing the great Larry Yando as the nasty vizier Jafar, Derek Hasenstab as the on-stage manipulator and voice of JafarĻs wisecracking parrot Iago, and Joseph Anthony Foronda as the sultan.
That trio of A list actors is complemented by Bill Larkinís hilarious Robin Williams-ish turn as the genie who emerges from the enchanted lamp, Melissa Espinoza as Princess Jasmine, and Tony Clarno as Aladdin. The company is filled out with Karissa Barney, Sean Blake, Alex Goodrich, Jillian Jocson, and Erik Kaiko taking multiple roles in multiple costumes that must have created a controlled frenzy of clothing changes off stage.
The production values are well up to the expected CST high standards. The costumes designed by Debbie Baer are numerous and colorful. Brian Sidney Bembridgeís scenic design takes us into the exotic world of the Arabian Nights. Meredith Miller designed the amusing puppets, notably the fantastical plumage sported by Iago the parrot.
The special effects are a delight, like the magic carpet that rises high above the stage to transport Aladdin and the princess. The dramatic lighting (designed by Jesse Klug) and billowing smoke materialize and dematerialize key characters. James Savage designed the sound and Melissa Veal the wigs and makeup (presumably including the genie's Blue Man Group skin tone).
How hip is Aladdin? Early in the intermissionless 70-minute show, three aristocratic suitors make their pitch to marry the princess. The first is a young black man introduced as the prince formerly known as the artist. Show me a five year old who will pick up on that gag. The script is full of such clever bits, most of them funneled through Bill Larkinís genie, though Larry Yando, the definitive sneering Disney villain, contributes his share along with Hasenstab's Iago.
The score takes a handful of the movie's songs and recycles them into a full score deftly arranged and orchestrated by Bryan Louiselle. The small electrified band delivers an especially fulsome sound.
The production is an impressive debut for director-choreographer Devanand Janki. Heís responsible for the sprightly humorous dances and shows himself a master of the CST playing space, which isnít automatically hospitable for musicals. If Aladdin was an audition for further work at the CST, Janki passed with honors.
A number of parents and guardians brought children below the suggested five-year-old age limit and we heard the chirping of three- and four-year olds throughout the performance commenting on the story. In one way their piping voices were intrusive, but it was a tribute to the production that the actions on stage could engage the attention of such a youthful audience so completely. For these little people, Aladdin likely was their first exposure to live theater and they couldnĻt have experienced a better introduction.
Aladdin runs through August 30 at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater on Navy Pier. Most performances are Wednesday at 11 a.m., Thursday through Saturday at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $23 for adults an $18 for children 5 to 12 years old. Call 312 595 56500 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com .
Read more critical acclaim for Disney's Aladdin