April 21-- CHICAGO-The gleaming white teeth of Adam Jacobs have done many sparkly trips around the rialto since their owner opened on Broadway atop "Aladdin," the most frenetic and intentionally cartoonish of Disney's screen-to-stage translations. That means Jacobs and his enviable molars-both moved to that hit show's first national tour, which officially opened Wednesday in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace Theatre-have acquired some much-needed Broadway choppety-chops.
Luckily for Jacobs, he also has acquired a charming new Princess Jasmine in Isabelle McCalla, one with whom a street urchin with a flying carpet actually can have an emotional connection and even a relationship. She's a complicated, independent woman who, like every woke Disney princess these days, always prefers life outside the palace walls. Not quite enough to overthrow the monarchy or the income inequality that benefits herself, but still. Every princess who hopes to sell a sweatshirt must move with the sentiments of her people.
"Aladdin" will never be my favorite of the Disney musicals. It's by no means a failure-like, say, "The Little Mermaid"-and it comes with some terrific Howard Ashman/Alan Menken songs that were not part of a movie that is much less of an adventure-caper-farce than the show, and far more of a squishy romance. But the stage musical "Aladdin" also is a not a producer's masterpiece like "The Lion King," nor a charming work of great artistic accomplishment like "Beauty and the Beast" or even an unexpected pleasure like "Newsies."
"Aladdin" came bearing the brunt of expectation and, at the New York box office, it certainly has met them in every way. But when I saw the show on Broadway in 2014-just prior to its opening-I found myself repelled not so much by the show's freneticism and eagerness to please, although that can be grating for your average cynical adult, but by the distance between what was happening on stage and what happens in actual life.
Now, that might sound like a ridiculous parameter to put on such a story-which employs the most diverse cast Disney ever has used on stage but still has to take place in an Arab world so timelessly retro and culturally non-specific as to be nowhere recognizable. (There are, in fairness, a variety of good reasons for that.) But it was the frenetic flips in Chad Beguelin's gag-filled book, and in director Casey Nicholaw's production, that bothered me the most-the way, say, one of Aladdin's sidekicks, or one of the show's many semi-anonymous bad guys, would be ready to smack someone in the head and then, just a demi-second later, be giving them a big fat kiss. Violence can be cartoonish-and there are even more good reasons for that here-without losing all its relationship to causality and veracity.
A good deal of that smugness has been corrected in this new company; a lot was achieved by adding a little more subtlety to the human aspects of the staging and by actually encouraging the actors to commit to the logic of every moment. You can't beat catching a first-class tour right at the start, before the weariness of the road has set in, but with a second company cast after the creative team really knows what it needs for this thing to work, which is rarely the case before a show opens on Broadway. The new "Aladdin" crew is committed and fun, which you would expect, but they also bring more emotional depth to a show naturally inclined to remain in the shallow end of the pool, which you would not.
Which brings me to the Genie-a touchy assignment for the clearly genial Anthony Murphy, given that he (kinda) follows Robin Williams and (most certainly) follows that formidable scene-stealer James Monroe Iglehart. As befits this cast. Murphy is a kinder, gentler Genie who takes a while to get into the swing-for-the-rafters of dispensing wishes, anachronisms (he pulls out a Cubs cap at one point) and the charms of the really big personality, available, alas for him, merely with the most casual of rubs. But Murphy's work (and the songwriting prowess of Menken and his late partner, Ashman) stopped the show for a standing ovation on Wednesday-a reaction far more commonplace on Broadway than with tours-and he exits the stage having fully delivered any reasonable wish.
Similarly, the bad guys, including Chicago actor Jonathan Weir as nasty Jafar, and wacky Reggie De Leon as his funny sidekick Iago, never drop the handkerchief of evil.
Given tours these days, it's important to note that this is a first-class, Equity incarnation, and if Bob Crowley's jovial and extravagant setting has been reduced for touring purposes, no diminishment in glistening gold is visible to the naked eye. "Aladdin" still is a very big and eye-popping show, replete with the requisite magic carpet ride against a backdrop of the glittering (and wire-hiding) lights of a utopian Arabian night, devoutly to be wished.
When: Through Sept. 10
Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Tickets: $44-$153 at 800-775-2000 or www.broadwayinchicago.com
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