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Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ makes a gorgeous Muny show

By Judith Newmark | Post-Dispatch Theater Critic

Aside from last week’s brilliant “Chicago” and maybe the upcoming “Dreamgirls,” the shows in the 2012 Muny season seem entirely suitable for families to enjoy together. But the fairy-tale titles that appear nearly every year constitute a definite invitation to the younger set, and the production of Disney’s “Aladdin” that opened Thursday offers a special inducement: You’ve never seen it before.

And you’ve never seen anything like it.

Based on the animated movie but produced onstage only once before, “Aladdin” is a gorgeous spectacle, bursting with color and jammed with modes of transportation. What with live camels, a flying carpet, a motorcycle, a golf cart and even, oh yes, a Segway, director Gary Griffin reminds us that this simple story about a poor peasant boy and the beautiful princess he loves is, in fact, going someplace.

It might as well be on the road.

And this new show — with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin (who also wrote the book) — tips its turban to the famed “road movies” of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. Not only does it share those movies’ taste for exotic locales, it shares their winking sense of humor.

It also includes a trio of comic singers — Eddie Korbich, Jason Graae and Muny favorite Francis Jue — who let us in on the joke from the opening number. As soon as they arrive on the backs of those camels (which come from Double R Exotics in Burfordville, Mo.), we know that Griffin has whipped up a big, red-velvet box of Muny eye-candy.

Set designer Michael Anania, costume designer Mara Blumenfeld and lighting designer Seth Jackson treat us to a dreamscape of tiles and turrets, capturing the architecture of a mythical Arabian city. One design, the sapphire-blue entrance to a magic cave, is so magnificent that on opening night the audience defied an old theatrical saying and, yes, applauded for the set. Even the Muny house, where the audience sits, turns into part of the show.

The glittering jewel-tone costumes are worth memorizing for future Halloweens; the new “scenic wall” delivers brilliant, giant-size images. Only the flying carpet looks underpowered, with its simple black backdrop. On the other hand, it provides a unique setting for one of the show’s best songs, the love ballad “A Whole New World” that Aladdin (charming Robin de Jesus) and Princess Jasmine (lovely Samantha Massell) sing to each other.

Compared to the great Menken-Ashman musicals “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast,” the score of “Aladdin” could use work. After the trio’s witty opening number, “Arabian Nights,” the first act slows down. That’s mainly because of a run of formulaic songs.

But as soon as Aladdin enters the cave to find a magic lamp, the show gets the jolt it needs. As the Genie, John Tartaglia shoots the show full of adrenalin — kidding and camping, singing and dancing, shamelessly playing with funny voices and faces.

His big number, “Friend Like Me,” is the “Aladdin” version of “Be Our Guest” in “Beauty and the Beast.” Thanks to Tartaglia, the talented ensemble choreographed by Alex Sanchez and the Muny orchestra under Greg Anthony, it delivers the same kind of punch. It’s just what we’ve been waiting for.

There are more satisfying turns from Ken Page as Jasmine’s noble father, Thom Sesma as the scheming Jafar (with an excellent evil laugh) and Curtis Holbrook as Iago. Iago is a bird, and Holbrook is so deft a performer that he makes that clear even though Iago is a bird that can talk.

“Beauty and the Beast” rises to the level of the all-time best family musicals, “Peter Pan” and “The Wizard of Oz.” “Aladdin” doesn’t achieve those heights, partly because of the score and partly because its central characters are not as psychologically complex. But it’s beautifully staged, performed with vigor and bursting with surprises. For the third week in a row, the familiar Muny feels fresh.