'A Whole New World." Not only is that the title of the most famous song from Disney's tuneful 1994 animated film Aladdin, and not only is the performance of that song the unchallenged highlight of Disney's Aladdin Jr., Summer Repertory Theater's current live adaptation of the film, a whole new world, as it stands, is also the appropriate summation of things ever since Disney popped off the screen in the '80s and began its slow but steady plan to conquer the stage as well.
Beginning with the 1994 Broadway transformation of Disney's Oscar-nominated Beauty and the Beast (which ends its New York run this Sunday after an astonishing 13-year run), Disney has launched an electric light parade of multimillion-dollar stage reinventions of itself. Witness The Lion King, Tarzan, Mary Poppins and, opening this Christmas in the same theater being abandoned by Belle and her prince, The Little Mermaid.
At the same time, Disney has been reworking and licensing several of its other beloved animated films—Alice in Wonderland, Mulan, 101 Dalmatians, Sleeping Beauty, The Jungle Book and others—into abridged, pre-packaged, ready-to-go stage products aimed primarily at schools and small community theater companies. To identify them as such, these shows usually carry the words "Kids" or "Junior," as in The Jungle Book Kids or Mulan Jr. And they all must carry the Disney name on posters and advertisements—which brings us back to Disney's Aladdin Jr.
As intended by Disney, SRT's hour-long, nine-performance, all-matinee run of Aladdin Jr. is intended specifically for audiences made up of kids; though solidly a part of this year's SRT program, it exists outside the regular five-show subscription package. The best things to be said about this production, directed with an eye toward swift pacing and visual invention by James Newman, is that everything is fun to look at and does not have a single slow spot.
The story, about an Arabian street kid who woos the Sultan's daughter with the help of a magic lamp and its resident genie, lends itself to big, over-the-top performances, and the leads all deliver. Claire Buchignani as Princess Jasmine and Nicholas Tubbs as Aladdin both have strong stage presence and wonderful singing voices, and they bring the right balance of sweetness and heroism to their performances. Anchored by Buchignani's lovely pop-rock voice, their magic-carpet duet is the highlight of the show.
Tubbs, who has literally grown up in the local theater community, is developing into a fine actor with a nice leading-man vibe, and Lisa Thomas, another up-and-coming local, gets a huge share of the laughs as she bounds through a borscht belt array of gags, one-liners and funny voices as the blue-haired Genie. Lauren Myers crossdresses her way into the part of the evil Jafar, playing the scheming would-be ruler with an enjoyably arch sense of comic villainy. As Jafar's feathered hench-bird Iago, Lani Bassich matches the genie as a comic creation, mugging her way through a role that demands a high degree of energy.
If only the rest of the cast were able to muster the same energy, this would be a stronger show. Not that it matters to the army of six-year-olds in attendance, but the ensemble, with few exceptions, comes off as conspicuously uninvolved, no more present or energetic than the average occupants of a parade float, robotically waving at the crowd as they wait for the whole thing to be over.
Another distressing point is SRT's troubling decision to use canned music instead of a live orchestra, which is becoming more and more common with the rise of Disney-themed shows. Certainly, audiences get to hear a the sound of a large, professional orchestra without suffering the random squeak and squawk of a less polished ensemble. But at the same time, all those kids in the audience are being deprived of seeing a live cast performing with a live orchestra, one of the many magical components of live musical theater.
As the unstoppable Disneyfication of theater continues, this is just one more issue to debate and consider as we choose what kinds of theatrical magic we want our children to be exposed to.
'Disney's Aladdin Jr.' runs Aug. 2&–4 and 9&–11 at 2pm. Burbank Auditorium, SRJC, 1501 Mendocino Ave., Santa Rosa. $8. 707.527.4343.