by Hedy Weiss
July 14, 2009
Consider the busy theatrical flight pattern over Chicago this past weekend. Just as "Aladdin," the Disney musical based on the 1992 animated feature, officially piloted its magic carpet onto the Chicago Shakespeare Theater stage, the national tour of another Disney show, "Mary Poppins," folded its umbrella in Chicago and prepared to fly off to St. Louis.
The big surprise is that in many respects, "Aladdin"—based on one of the most beloved stories in the Arabian classic "One Thousand and One Nights"—turns out to be every bit as enchanting as the "Poppins" spectacle, not to mention shorter, hipper, wittier and less expensive. True, the most serious-minded Scheherazade aficionados will continue to head to Lookingglass Theatre for "The Arabian Nights," extended through Aug. 9. But for those who appreciate a bit of Borscht Belt giddiness stirred into their Middle Eastern storytelling, "Aladdin"—with its wonderfully playful pastiche-like score by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice and its exceptionally deft book by Jim Luigs (spiced by Shakespeare and Oprah quotes)—is the bustling marketplace of choice. And you don't need to be a kid (or even invite one along) to enjoy it.
As it happens, this fully satisfying 70-minute musical contains many familiar Shakespearean themes as it spins the story of Princess Jasmine (the spirited Melissa Espinosa), who is determined to choose a mate she truly loves rather than one approved by her father, the Sultan (Joseph Anthony Foronda). Jasmine's suitor of choice is Aladdin (the fresh and immensely likable Tony Clarno), a handsome street scamp who must prove himself worthy of her.
Of course there's interference by way of a scheming court villain, Jafar (a Rasputin-like Larry Yando) and his assistant Iago (Derek Hasenstab, working Meredith Miller's red parrot puppet). But Aladdin has the invaluable assistance of the Genie he discovered living in a lamp—an earthy, blue-skinned wish granter (with Al Jolson-like impulses), played by the happily rambunctious Bill Larkin, who would make a terrific Shrek.
Brilliantly animating all this for the live stage is director-choreographer Devanand Janki, who infuses the show with a sort of Bollywood-meets-vaudeville energy. Janki, who scored with an earlier family show here ("How Can You Run With a Shell on Your Back?"), clearly deserves an adult project next. He has been wonderfully aided and abetted by music director Ben Johnson and his band; the ever-morphing actors Sean Blake, Alex Goodrich, Erik Kaiko, Karissa Barney and Jillian Jocson, and the glorious Islamic picture book designs of Brian Sidney Bembridge (sets), Jesse Klug (lighting) and Debbie Baer (costumes).
And oh yes, don't forget to check for a camel under your seat.
Read more critical acclaim for Disney's Aladdin