By Mike Sherfy, KnoxPages.com Theater Critic
MOUNT VERNON - “Aladdin” may not be Disney’s best animated feature—and certainly does not rank among its most timeless—but it is much beloved. Now, as the children whose parents brought them to see it in theaters in 1992 somehow find themselves with children of their own, it seems a good fit for a revival onstage to pass along the memories to the next generation. MTVarts offers the perfect opportunity for that this weekend with “Aladdin Jr”—an adaptation of the film well-suited to young audiences…and young performers.
And there are a LOT of young performers. Sixty actors participated in the workshop that led to the production and all of them appear in some capacity as performers. The large cast means that the stage can, at times, be too crowded to appreciate the choreography (which is quite good…especially considering the age-range among the youthful dancers) but this is offset by their tendency to spill into the audience, bringing the crowd more intimately into the musical numbers than is usually the case.
The size of the cast also offered Vocal Director Laura Ackert the opportunity to draw some impressive performances in the play’s major production numbers. “Arabian Nights”, “Friend Like Me”, and “Prince Ali”, all of which involve dozens of performers, stand out as the show’s musical highlights.
This version of the Aladdin story emphasizes the need to “be yourself” rather than what others expect you to be. MTVarts newcomer Mark Fongheiser brings a lot of enthusiasm to the stage and performs well in the title role and MTVarts veteran Elle Pavao typifies the headstrong Princess Jasmine (even though the role itself is toned down in this adaptation). As is often the case, however, in Disney’s “Jr.” productions, the villains and secondary characters are given more room to shine and grab the attention of the audience. Andrew Ruckman, for example, gets to chew some scenery as the power-hungry Jafar. Maxwell Wolfe and Brianna Small play up their moments as wise-cracking, comic-relief henchmen. And, as Jaffar’s right-hand parrot, Iago, Fredi Bockover delivers a high-energy performance, landing laugh lines, flitting about, and even engaging in a melodic duet and a dance number….all the while remembering that parrots always need to flap their wings.
But Aladdin’s story would get nowhere without the Genie. Rachel Rinehart may not be Robin Williams, but she has appeared in many local productions—as Ursula in MTVarts’s “Little Mermaid” and as Anna in MVHS’s “The King and I” to name just a few—and she brings a lot of energy and flair to the role as she vamps about granting wishes while expressing bitterness about her own lack of freedom. While she didn’t impersonate Jack Nicholson, Rinehart punches up the production with many of the laugh lines that might go above kids’ heads but appeal to their parents.
In a surprisingly effective narrative conceit, the story is kept bustling forward in this adaptation by a bevy of microphone-wielding, veiled paparazzi—played by Kennedy Aikey, Megan Campbell, Lily Mayville, Maya McDonald, and Chloe Skillman. Their wry commentary, which would not seem out of place on TMZ or the E! network, also speaks to parents as well as children. Like the Genie’s dialogue, it fits well into a story that is infamously one of Disney’s more self-aware features.
The rehearsal on Wednesday revealed that—as is the case with any dress rehearsal—the production remained at the time a “diamond in the rough”. A large cast makes for a lot of moving parts and, while it was clearly coming together, a few minor hiccups remained. As usual, microphone issues were still being worked out…as were some of the puppetry and smoke-machine commands. All of these, however, seem destined to be polished over by the time that city and county elementary schools sent audiences to performances on Thursday and Friday mornings.
Even then, some imagination will remain necessary. Disney-sanctioned special effects are impressive but transforming a wordless but nimble acrobatic girl into a ridable gravity-defying carpet is no mean feat without some willful suspension of disbelief. But—whether one has seen the film or not—“Aladdin Jr” offers grandparents, parents, and children an enjoyable seventy-odd minutes of music and fun. Orientalism, nostalgia, and pop culture blend together in the production in ways sure to please young audience members and older ones (though perhaps not always for quite the same reasons).
And there is a monkey wearing a fez. Who DOESN’T want to see a monkey wearing a fez?
Performances will be held at the Knox County Memorial Theater at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, September 25. A matinee will be held on Saturday, September 26, at 2:00 p.m. Tickets are available at the door and at the MTVArts website. http://mtvarts.com