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A whole new, same old ‘Aladdin’

Magic carpet ride: Aiza Seguerra (Genie), Tom Rodriguez (Aladdin), K-La Rivera (Jasmine) and Calvin Millado (Genie)

MANILA, Philippines - Atlantis Productions has clearly made it a new habit to 1) stage a Disney musical at yearend, starting with last December’s The Little Mermaid; and 2) constantly top themselves in terms of production value, ensembles and grand musical numbers that wow both children and adults.

This year, the company has chosen to tackle Aladdin, based on Disney’s 1992 animated musical. To do so was a brave undertaking, since the stage adaptation was crafted only recently. It debuted in 2011, with Chad Beguelin as the author and longtime legendary composer Alan Menken (Pocahontas, Beauty and the Beast and many other Disney classics) returning to contribute more of his self-penned tunes. Thus, the musical hasn’t quite built up a reputation in the world of theater as of yet. Nonetheless, it is apparent that Atlantis’ staging has managed more than its fair share of making “Aladdin” feel right at home on stage.

One would expect pinpoint focus on the titular character himself. But the musical does not present anything half-baked — not even the desolate, empty region that is Agrabah. Framing the stage is an elaborate set piece composed of stained glass, a giant intricate lamp embedded in the center of it all. Bedazzled with buildings, the production presents a true picture of Arabian nights in a town filled with an impressive ensemble of market-goers.

Atlantis’ Aladdin is not without its slight adjustments and story changes. First off, the audience is introduced to three new characters (that were originally cut from the film) who serve as the narrators for the unfortunate children who have somehow not experienced the magic of Aladdin yet (shame on you, parents). Bakbak (Bibo Reyes), Omar (Johann Dela Fuente) and Kassim (Jamie Wilson) are Aladdin’s bandmates, who thrive on a cappella and self-referential humor. They are a welcome addition, taking over the role of Abu (who is absent) and adding to the modernized feel of the play.

Playing Aladdin is Tom Rodriguez, who has got to be the best casting choice for the character, as he fits into the iconic vest and fez perfectly. Despite being a theater newbie, he captures Aladdin’s playfulness and penchant for mischief (perfectly shown in One Jump Ahead), while tackling the heartwarming odes to his mother (a new plot point). What is most notable is the incredible likeness of his voice to Aladdin’s from the movie. Anyone who knows the songs back to front (ahem) can close their eyes and it would be just like listening the soundtrack. Still, this is not recommended because Aladdin’s thieving antics are fun to watch, leaving the audience spellbound.

Taking on Lea Salonga’s Jasmine is K-La Rivera, who has grown to be much more comfortable on the stage since her performance in In the Heights. Jasmine is also more of a mischief-maker in this adaptation, but her sagely demureness is still around to complement Aladdin’s more hyperactive moments. Rodriguez and Rivera succeed in bringing about the necessary chemistry between their characters, which is especially affirmed by the barrage of yihees from the crowd.

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Raul Montesa is this version’s aptly more comical Jafar, propped up by Jimmy Marquez’s human version of Iago (unfortunately, no animal characters appeared to have made it to the final cut). Jun Ofrasio plays the Sultan, who’s much less clueless this time around. And of course, last but not least is Aiza Seguerra as everyone’s favorite scene-stealing, fast-talking genie. There are no comparisons to Robin Williams’ popular depiction in the movie, which was, most likely, the intention of the play’s author. Instead, the more modernized genie is back with his odes to pop culture, and unlike before, a penchant for hip-hop slang. Aiza Seguerra makes the role her own, especially during the genie’s show-stopping introduction number, Friend Like Me.

All in all, Aladdin is a tribute not just to its original animated counterpart, but to Disney as a whole. There are plenty of tidbits for nostalgics to eat up, and the play itself exudes the family-friendly (but still wonderfully witty) charm that Walt himself would have loved. Next year, Atlantis Productions is already set to bring to the stage the Disney version of Tarzan, which is bound to be just as lively and compelling. Who gets to play the perpetually eponymous bare-chested character is anyone’s guess, but for now, Aladdin deserves all the praises as one of the production company’s best. And yes, the magic carpet ride does live up to the hype.

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Aladdin will continue its run in Meralco Theater on Dec. 7 (8 p.m.), Dec. 8 (2 p.m. and 8 p.m.) and Dec. 9 (3 p.m.). For tickets, visit www.ticketworld.com.ph.

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