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Sue Kruse

Disney's Aladdin – Musically Spectacular?

Wednesday, December 18, 2003

Article and all photos by Sue Kruse

[Spoiler warning: This detailed review of Disney's Aladdin – A Musical Spectacular contains information about the show's plot, characters, and some special effects.]

Aladdin prepares to enter the Cave of Wonders
Aladdin prepares to enter the Cave of Wonders. Photo by Sue Kruse.

You may have been wondering why, up to this point, MousePlanet has made no mention of the new show, Disney's Aladdin – A Musical Spectacular, playing in the Hyperion Theatre at Disney's California Adventure. This lack of coverage is, I'm sorry to say, in large part due to me. You see, I balked at providing a review of any sort. My reasoning on this issue is that Disney has repeatedly maintained this new show is going to be a Broadway quality show that, in the words a of recent press release, “will delight guests in ways they have never before experienced, as well as changing the way theme park entertainment is viewed by the public at large.”

“Review a Broadway-style show before it has opened,” I pondered. “Um, no. That's not quite right.” The show has been added to the normal operating schedule though, so in effect, it's open and it's time to have a look at the show as it now stands. MousePlanet will, of course, revisit the show after its official opening in January, and let you know what, if anything, has changed.

I'm as curious about this new show as I suspect you are. The first time I saw it was Thanksgiving morning. What I saw was both good, and not so good. I found myself torn, rather like Jane Austin's Emma – “I love Aladdin. I hate Aladdin. I love Aladdin. I hate Aladdin.”

As a theme park show, it's pretty good. Not the best I've ever seen, but entertaining nonetheless – and I kind of like it. It needs a bit of tweaking, but that's what previews are for, and in fact, as I write this, scheduled performances have been cancelled for a week to work on the show a bit more.

As a Broadway-style show, Aladdin – A Musical Spectacular is terrible. More than just a little tweaking, it needs a complete overhaul. If this show should open on Broadway as staged now, I suspect it would close faster than you can say, “One jump.”

For me, this love/hate of the show is wherein lies my problem in reporting to you, the readers, what the new show is like. In an attempt to solidify my views, I went to see the show several more times after Thanksgiving Day. Each time, I came away with the same feeling: I still love/hate the show.

I have to say that it's really nice to once again have a show at the Disneyland Resort that is a real show. By that, I mean that this show doesn't pander to children and forget that adults sit in the audience, too. It's not populated by rubber-head characters miming to voice-overs. It features real actors, dancers, and singers, and has special effects that are sometimes fantastic – and sometimes not. It also has a new song, “To Be Free,” written especially for the show by award-winning composer Alan Menken. In an attempt to elevate the quality of theme park shows, Disney has assembled a creative team composed of members culled from the all parts of the theater world. This team includes noted opera director Francesca Zambello, choreographer Lynne Taylor-Corbett, and Tony Award-winning set designer Peter J. Davison.

Alan Menken
Alan Menken performs his new composition at
the Aladdin press event. Photo by Sue Kruse.

The show, borrowing a bit of staging from The Lion King, begins with a puppeteer, camel puppet, and storyteller. The storyteller traverses the stage from one side to the other following the puppeteer and camel, and sets the scene for the tale to come. This entire bit could probably be cut from the show, as the storyteller setup really is unnecessary to the action and is never employed again. Worse, what should be a big wow factor is given away by bad lighting: While the storyteller and her camel cohorts tell of blistering sands and 1000 (not 1001) Arabian Nights, the scrim behind them is lit in such a fashion that it gives away the fact that the Cave of Wonders is waiting behind the scrim for the next scene, which completely spoils it when the Cave of Wonders actually does make its entrance.

After a brief scene explaining that the Cave of Wonders will not yield its mysteries to any but a diamond in the rough, the action moves on to the marketplace in the city of Agrabah. The staging of Aladdin's flight through the marketplace made me long for Animazement, Disneyland's former show. The Aladdin segment of that show was quite effective. Employing an economy of actors, it managed to convey a real sense of immediate danger for the Aladdin character in the middle of a wild chase through crowded and narrowly confined streets of a bustling marketplace.

Aladdin, A Musical Spectacular employs a considerably larger cast for this scene than did Animazement, but even so, manages to provide neither real sense of chase nor any danger to Aladdin. The set just seems vacuous with walls sliding back and forth and ensemble members all looking as though they have no idea where they are supposed to be or what they are supposed to be doing when they get there. The people of this Agrabah must be the dumbest folks on the face of the planet because the staging is such that at several points during the scene, any one of them could reach out with no effort whatsoever and grab Aladdin – and yet they choose to stand there, flail their loaves of bread or whatever, and call for the guards, who are, at any given moment, an arm's length away.

The most ludicrous bit of staging in this scene comes when Aladdin, who is singing the song “One Jump Ahead” all throughout the chase, gets to the line, “all you have to do is jump.” Jump he does. Apparently he developed super powers somewhere along the line because he flies up over the entire marketplace like he's the Six Million Dollar Man. Either that, or since this is Disney, Aladdin has some flubber in his shoes. That would explain it.

When the fine people of Agrabah decide to stop running around like mad men and Aladdin is finally cornered, suddenly Princess Jasmine reveals her presence to the marketplace crowd and temporarily saves our hero Al from the horrors of capture. “I demand you set this poor peasant free immediately,” she cries in a line that seems lifted straight from another Disney property, Hunchback of Notre Dame. Just as suddenly as she reveals her presence, Jasmine huffs off. Why Aladdin will find this snotty princess charming, I'm not sure. However, there are other things to which attention must be paid. Aladdin's not out of hot water yet, there are still the guards to contend with.

Princess Jasmine
Jasmine announces, "I demand you set him free." Photo by Sue Kruse.

Enter an old man who mysteriously appears from nowhere to bribe the guards with a coin-filled purse in exchange for Aladdin's freedom. The man explains to Aladdin there is a price to pay for the coins offered, and mutters something about a diamond in the rough – and the audience is clued in to the old guy's identity. He is, of course, Jafar and—yes, you guessed it—he's going to get Aladdin to jump into the Cave of Wonders in search of the magic lamp.

We see Aladdin make that jump, and the scene quickly changes as he falls from above into the depths of the cave. This is cleverly done by flying an Aladdin double against a black background with a silhouette of Jafar looking down on Aladdin as he makes his descent. It begins a whole sequence that I like a lot and am sure most audiences will, too. Unfortunately, someone forgot to pay attention to a rather important detail, and which spoils it a tiny bit: When last we saw Jafar, he was dressed in the guise of the old man. It's the old man who persuades Aladdin to jump into that cave, remember? The silhouette used here depicts Jafar not as an old man, but in his most Jafarishness with cape and feather-embellished turban.

Aladdin in the Cave of Wonders
Aladdin inside the Egyptian-themed Cave of Wonders. Photo by Sue Kruse.

Aladdin lands in amid a gold-filled, treasure-laden cave. The only problem with this is that I didn't really understand why the Cave of Wonders was filled with Egyptian treasures when the story takes place somewhere in Arabia. I quickly forgot the little point though, as soon as Aladdin touched something other than the magic lamp, which of course, the audience knows he's going to do as soon as the instructions, “Touch only the lamp,” are issued by Jafar. There are lots of glitzy effects in this show, but my favorite is what follows next. It's very simply done and truthfully, it's not all that glitzy, but it's stunningly effective. Huge boulders tumble down and seal the opening of the Cave of Wonders, locking Aladdin in. What's a boy to do?

Aladdin is left with only the lamp and a little blue carpet. Not just any carpet though, but a magic carpet, and my other favorite thing about this production. The carpet's costume is adorable, and so is the actress in it. She never utters a line, but conveys her carpetness splendidly – and I found her totally charming. If I were to see the show much, I know the carpet would be a constant favorite.

Totally charming magic carpet
The totally charming magic carpet. Photo by Sue Kruse.

The magic carpet is smart, too. It doesn't take long for the carpet to teach Aladdin what to do with the only other thing left in the cave. As he frets about how he will escape from the rocky tomb, she instructs him to rub the lamp lying on the floor in front of him. He does, and you-know-who appears in the midst of one of the aforementioned glitzy effects – Genie.

One of the things I love about live theater is its ability to make me feel like a kid and suspend disbelief. I can see the wires that fly Peter Pan, but I just deny they exist and for that moment in time, believe Peter is really flying. How I wish they could have given me that bit of theater magic here. Way too long before Genie makes his entrance, a couple of wires appear and you know something is up. If you are seated in the theater anywhere other than the orchestra section, you can also see the trap in the stage open and then you really know something is up.

As they so often do in this production, the Genie's entrance is achieved with the use of a double. Aladdin rubs the lamp, Genie-double flies up into the ceiling via the wires while at the same time, Genie-principle pops up out of the trap. It's not real smooth, and for a second or two, there are two Genies visible at the same time on stage. The first time I watched this, my eyes followed Genie-double all the way up into the ceiling, and I wondered why he was flying up there – “Where's Genie going?” Then I saw Genie-principle on stage. “Oh, okay, I get it,” I thought to myself. The Genie's entrance should be a little less effects-laden and a little more spectacular. “Oh, I get it,” should not be the reaction.

In the movie version of the Aladdin tale, Genie is one funny guy. He's voiced by Robin Williams, though, so that's to be expected. Those are darned big shoes to fill, and while Genie in this production is not quite up to that level (the script—not the actor—is at fault here), he is pretty funny and not at all disappointing. At one performance, I watched as a trap failed to open, ruining Genie's departure. It was obvious something had gone wrong, but the actor didn't let it ruffle him one bit. He ad-libbed, acknowledging the problem to the audience and thus easing the tension. Then, he made his exit walking off stage with another great ad-lib: a line about taking off for Barbie's yard sale.

Perhaps the glitziest number in the whole show belongs to Genie. In “A Friend Like Me,” Genie sings and dances the explanation of what one gets with a magic lamp. He multiplies, dons tails and top hat, and before the Las Vegas-like number is done, is a dozen Genies strutting down a neon-lit staircase.

Genie dance number
A dozen genies perform the show's glitziest number. Photo by Sue Kruse.

Somehow, despite the fact that Aladdin never makes the wish to escape from the Cave of Wonders, which is kind of a plot point that is left hanging, he is indeed freed from the cave to be found once again back in Agrabah. Maybe he used that staircase to climb up out of the cave.

Aladdin has the lamp. Jafar wants the lamp. Genie wants to be set free. Jasmine pouts. What's a genie to do? Why, turn Aladdin into a prince, of course. If Jasmine falls in love with Aladdin, she'll stop pouting, and good old Aladdin will wish for the freedom Genie desires. Sounds like a plan to me.

Next glitzy showtopper coming...

[Continued on next page.]


You can drop Sue Kruse a line at tggrfn@aol.com

FURTHER READING

Aladdin, Live or DOA?” – Sue Kruse reviews the Aladdin press event [Oct 14, '02]

Storytelling at Disneyland” – Adrienne Krock details Disneyland's Aladdin and Jasmine StoryTale Adventures [Jan 10, '01]

The Lion King” – Sue Kruse reviews the Broadway show [Mar 5, '01].

The Lion King” – Magic Years writer Christopher reviews the Broadway show [Sep 19, '01].

Beauty & the Beast” – Magic Years writer Christopher reviews the Broadway show [Sep 5, '01].

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