A year ago I had never heard of the Tuacahn Amphitheatre in southern Utah, now I can’t wait to go back. The beautiful red rock backdrop of the outdoor amphitheatre provides the perfect setting for bringing the classic story of Aladdin to life on stage. Having already staged the regional premieres of two other Disney musicals, it is easy to see why Disney Theatrical chose the Tuacahn for the first regional production of the newly expanded verison Aladdin following last year's pilot production at Seattle's 5th Avenue. Under the direction of Tuacahn’s Artistic Director Scott Anderson this show truly has to be seen to be believed as the Tuacahn brings the magic of the film to the stage.
To help bring the magic to life, the Tuacahn brought in former Disney Imagineer Geoff Puckett to create a special 3D sequence for the Cave of Wonders and Genie’s showstopping Friend Like Me. This was the first time I’ve ever had to wear 3D glasses at live theatre and I’ll admit I was a bit unsure how well it would work. I shouldn’t have worried. The effect worked wonderfully, adding a real sense of magic to the show and allowing for visuals that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible, especially once Aladdin rubbed the lamp.
Whilst the 3D scenes were certainly the most innovative use of special effects in the production, as a Tuacahn first timer it was the venue that stood out to me as the real special effect. Making full use of his outdoor setting Anderson sets the scene beautifully in the opening number as live camels walk out onto the stage, the water screen projection used for the entrance to the Cave of Wonders has a beautiful mirage like quality (and reminded me of Disney’s Fantasmic show, never a bad thing), and pyrotechnics and fireworks are used to great effect throughout the show, especially for Genie’s entrances and exits. Two of the real highlights though are saved for the second act. Act 2's opening number of Prince Ali features an actual parade across the desert landscape behind the stage, including actors riding horses, before Genie leads the procession through the palace gates and onto the stage where dancers wearing light up costumes and carrying live peacocks dazzle the audience in a huge production number (but make sure you also keep an eye on Jeff Asch’s Iago who dances along just like in the film!). But even this can’t compare with A Whole New World when Aladdin and Jasmine take flight on a magic carpet that takes them up and over the audience as they sing. It was a truly magical moment and one I will never forget, especially as the audience spontaneously burst into applause as the carpet took flight.
But, to paraphrase Genie, you can have the fancy effects and the parade, but that doesn’t mean anything if the heart isn’t there, "you have to put the Al back in Ali". Fortunately if there’s one thing better than the special effects in this production, it’s the fabulous cast that bring these characters to life with incredible heart and energy every other night.
The first characters we’re introduced to are Babkak, Omar and Kassim, who act as both Aladdin’s friends and narrators of the show. Comically played by Paul C. Vogt, Randy Aaron and Todd DuBail respectively, these characters move the story along whilst providing great comedic moments and some fantastic harmonies. One of the highlights of the show is a "new" song called High Adventure where the trio storm the palace to rescue Aladdin, singing as they battle the guards and flirt with the dancers. Michael G. Hawkins and Jeff Asch are perfectly cast as the evil duo of Jafar and Iago, playing off each other brilliantly as they plot and scheme how to get the lamp and kill our heroes. But in a show of great comic performances, it’s Edward Juvier’s Genie who really steals the show, turning in a performance that has clearly taken inspiration from Robin Williams’ portrayal of the character but at the same time firmly making the role his own. His energy on stage is incredible as he dances, sings and ad-libs his way through the show to hilarious effect, all whilst retaining the emotion of the Genie longing for his freedom.
|Proud of Your Boy - Dan Domenech as Aladdin, Photo by Tuacahn|
Which leads me nicely to the musical numbers in the show. The first thing I will say is that the seamlessness to Aladdin is incredible. When you think that this show features work by three lyricists, it’s amazing that it all flows together as well as it does and new lyricist and book writer Chad Beguelin has my deepest thanks and respect for that. In addition to the original Ashman, Menken and Rice songs from the film (with some minor lyric changes for story reasons or to add back in unused Ashman lyrics) the show also features 7 additional "lost" songs and reprises from Ashman and Menken’s early work on Aladdin (in fact I’m tempted to say 8 as Arabian Nights has been dramatically extended using a lot of material previously only released on the Howard Sings Ashman CD) along with 2 all new songs and multiple reprises written by Menken and Beguelin specifically for this show.
Hearing these songs, especially the previously "lost" songs by Ashman and Menken, brought to life by a live orchestra and an incredible cast is a true musical treat. The fantastic choreography by Deanna Dys and tight harmonies by the core cast and ensemble made the extended Arabian Nights my favourite opening number to any Disney musical, and that level of quality carried all through the show, from the big show stopping numbers to the emotional ballads.
Whilst other Disney musicals have, for the most part, been extended adaptations of the original animated classics, Aladdin uses the extra length of its stage adaptation to add back in characters and ideas that were ultimately cut from the film before its release. The pace is faster and the tone is funnier, in fact I’d call Aladdin Disney’s first musical comedy, but at the same time it still manages to retain the emotional core of the animated classic. It was a brave choice by Disney, but if audience response at the Tuacahn is anything to go by then it has certainly paid off.
In conclusion, the Tuacahn’s production of Aladdin is a fast paced and hilarious adventure featuring a fantastic cast, incredible music, breathtaking special effects, great choreography and amazing sets and costumes, all set against the beautiful red rock backdrop of the Utah desert. The whole show was a visual and musical delight. You’ll laugh (a lot), you may even cry, and for 2½ hours you’ll be transported into a magical world of mystery and enchantment, where Genie’s appear in a puff of smoke and magic carpets soar high overhead.
I’d also like to add that whilst at the Tuacahn we had the opportunity to see their production of Hairspray which was absolutely fabulous. Like Aladdin they used the venue to incredible effect (where else would you see an actual school bus drive across the stage?) and the cast was brilliant, especially Paul C. Vogt as Edna and Bob Walton as Wilbur, who had me in absolute stitches as they performed You’re Timeless to Me. If you are planning on travelling to the Tuacahn to see Aladdin, do yourself a favour and see Hairspray as well, you won’t regret it!