As I waited for the curtain to go up on opening night of “Aladdin” at the Pantages Theater, I couldn’t help but wonder how the story would fare without the magic of Gilbert Gottfried, the late Robin Williams and Disney animation.
I didn’t even have to wait until intermission for my answer: Delightfully.
I’ve never seen a standing ovation before the end of a performance, but Michael James Scott’s Genie had us on our feet as he paused to catch his breath after the dance-and-magic marathon that is “Friend Like Me.”
That and all your other favorite songs from the film are in place, along with a few others that generally make fun additions.
Missing are a couple of animal characters, most notably Aladdin’s monkey sidekick Abu. Iago the parrot, meanwhile, is transformed into a squat human jester by Reggie De Leon, who originated the role on Broadway and does a nice job of parroting Gottfried’s feathered original.
Happy additions to the tale are a trio of human pals for Aladdin. Babkak (Zach Bencal), Omar (Philippe Arroyo) and Kassim (Mike Longo) are fellow marketplace thieves who contribute the best of the production’s original musical numbers – and bolster the story’s focus on the importance of friendship, honesty and being yourself.
Adam Jacobs, also from the Broadway cast, does a credible job as the hunky but self-doubting Aladdin. And he sings and dances with heroic agility. Isabelle McCalla’s strong vocals and spunky performance as Jasmine scrub any trace of ingenue from the role, leaving us with a smart, brave princess determined to lead life her way. Her en pointe delivery of the line, “Why not a woman running the kingdom?” drew a spontaneous burst of applause.
The cast is nicely rounded out by Jonathan Weir’s boo-worthy turn as Jafar and JC Montgomery’s Sultan, a misguided dad who does right in the end. I’d be remiss not to mention the amazing men and women in the ensemble cast, who set the stage for musical numbers grand and small and brought Agrabah to life.
And now, back to the Genie, because what makes “Aladdin” magical is his magic. From the moment he steps onstage to introduce the audience to “the most famous fictional city in the world,” Scott jokes, teases, flirts and breaks the forth wall at all the right moments. His spectacular dance and vocal talents – and a few breakaway costumes and basic magic tricks – help suspend our disbelief that this is just another ordinary human.
Quite human, though, is Scott’s more-serious delivery of the tale’s message about the value of freedom and making our own choices. The material has more impact, somehow, onstage than on a screen. And it’s this magic that is theater at its best.
Make the trip to the Pantages, and Agrabah, and see for yourself.