Disney’s Aladdin flies high at the Orpheum

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Adam Jacobs (Aladdin) and Anthony Murphy (Genie) (center) in Disney’s Aladdin North American Tour company at the Orpehum Theatre as part of the SHN season. Below: Jacobs and Isabelle McCalla as Jasmine prepare for a magic carpet ride. ©Disney.

There is no question in my mind, that of all Disney’s animated film to Broadway adaptations, Aladdin is the most thoroughly successful. For The Lion King stage adaptation, Julie Taymor offered eye-popping spectacle and stagecraft in service to a flimsy story and even flimsier characters. Beauty and the Beast, Disney’s first Broadway venture, was fun and dazzling but only a ride vehicle away from being a theme park attraction. The less said about the misguided Tarzan and missed opportunities of The Little Mermaid the better.

Aladdin is pure, old-fashioned musical comedy, and it works at all levels. On Broadway, the show was a delightful surprise, and happily, everything that made it so much fun is present and accounted for in the lavish national touring production now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season.

I reviewed the show for TheaterMania.com. Here’s a sampling.

There’s a reason Aladdin is Disney’s best animation-to-stage effort, and that reason is Tony Award-winning director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw. His work on shows like The Book of Mormon and Spamalot have honed his ability to bring just the right balance of comedy, razzmatazz, and heart to Aladdin’s bag of tricks.

Nicholaw’s success with Aladdin, now in its fourth year on Broadway and with the national tour, which launched earlier this year, has everything to do with his light, energetic touch and his ability to find humor that can appeal to children and adults.

Read the full review here.

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Disney’s Aladdin continues through Jan. 7 at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$213 (subject to change). Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

Something wickedly delightful in Something Rotten

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Shakespeare sings (sort of)! Rob McClure (center, arms wide) is Nick Bottom, co-inventor of the musical, in the touring production of the hit Broadway musical Something Rotten!, part of the SHN season at the Orpheum Theatre. Below: McClure as Nick and Adam Pascal as his arch rival, William Shakespeare. Photos by Jeremy Daniel

Thank you, Something Rotten!. I need that.

Sometimes you need light and froth and delectable show tunes to lift you out of the quagmire of our something-more-than-rotten times, and this musical, now at the Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season, is just the ticket.

But it’s not like current events are completely shut out. On the contrary. At Wednesday’s opening-night performance, a line about Nazis in The Sound of Music, which may have been slightly tweaked for the unfortunately Nazi-heavy news cycle this week, got such an audience response that it actually stopped the show.

But mostly, Something Rotten!, which ran for nearly two years on Broadway, is a whole lot of escapist fun, a crisp and funny contemporary example of why the classic musical comedy model works. Give ’em song and dance razzle dazzle, some hearty (and bawdy) jokes and tunes that don’t feel like the aural equivalent of gummy risotto and you’ll likely have a happy audience. And the San Francisco audience sure seemed happy.

Conceived by brothers Karey and Wayne Kirkpatrick, who wrote music and lyrics and co-wrote the book (with John O’Farrell), Something Rotten! is sort of a spin on Shakespeare in Love but more like Shakespeare in Rivalry (with jazz hands). It’s all about the invention of the musical as a means to surpass Shakespeare as the rock star playwright of Elizabethan times.

Brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom run a struggling theater London theater company. They are constantly in the shadow of Shakespeare, who used to be a bad actor in their company before Nick encouraged him to become a writer. They’re barely scraping by, and in desperation, older brother Nick spends his family’s last few coins to engage a soothsayer, Thomas Nostradmus (a distant relative of the more famous Nostradamus), to find out a) what the next big thing in theater is going to be and b) what Shakespeare’s greatest hit will be. The answers are, in order: musicals! and something about a sad prince eating a danish called Omelette.

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In the meantime, Nigel (the dreamy poet and the eventual, actual author of Shakespeare’s Hamlet) falls in love with Portia, a Puritan’s daughter, and Bea, Nick’s enterprising and equality minded wife, dons men’s drag to find gainful employment (and prove her point that women are the equal of men).

Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon, Aladdin) knows his way around bright and fizzy musicals, and he keeps Something Rotten! clipping right along, even when the heavy heart on its sleeve weighs things down a bit. The best moments are its lightest and brightest, with the absolute most memorable show-stopping moment coming with the Act 1 number, “A Musical,” when Nostradamus (Blake Hammond) reaches into the future to explain to Nick (Rob McClure) the whole concept of a musical. He borrows liberally from classic shows (The Music Man, South Pacific) and more contemporary shows (Rent, A Chorus Line) to illustrate his point, along with a tap-dancing, high-kicking chorus. The number builds to a frenzy of delight, and though the show peaks here, we are carried through to the end on such a wave of grinning good will that it hardly matters.

McClure’s central performance as Nick is as solid a musical comedy turn as you could hope for, and he’s nicely supported and contrasted by Josh Grisetti as the moony poet Nigel and by his real-life wife, Maggie Lakis playing his on-stage wife. For the role of Shakespeare, you need someone who can lend some rock-star edge to the role because that’s how he’s played here – he even performs a stadium-like greatest hits concert for his swooning fans – and Adam Pascal of Rent fame fits the bill. It also helps that he can be pretty funny while he’s parading around like the cock of the Tudor walk in the mighty pleasing costumes by Gregg Barnes (the codpieces alone are hilarious).

The character/actor who drew the most audible laughter from me was Scott Cote as the Puritan, Brother Jeremiah, who is fond of expressing his disdain for the corrupt world and its godless inhabitants by shrugging, shading, and flouncing like he was a contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race.

The general irreverence dial could be turned up a few notches for the show, but its sweetness is nicely cut by the numbers that Nick and Nigel are writing for the “new” musical theater form they are developing: “Black Death” (dancing Grim Reapers!), “It’s Eggs” (a scrambled notion) and “Make an Omelette” (more, more, more inside Broadway musical references).

Something Rotten! is definitely something delightful in the state of musical comedy. It’s also a show that basically reviews itself in its centerpiece song: “A big and shine-y, mighty fine-y, glitter-glitz-and-chorus-line-y, bob your head and shake your hiney musical.”

[bonus video]
Watch the Broadway company perform an abbreviated version of the standout number from Something Rotten, “A Musical.”

Something Rotten continues through Sept. 10 as part of the SHN season at the Orpheum Theatre, 1192 Market St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$214. Call 888-746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.

I believe! Book of Mormon really is that good

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Phyre Hawkins (left) provides an African send-off to Mormon missionaries Elder Price (Gavin Creel, center) and Elder Cunningham (Jared Gertner) in The Book of Mormon at the Curran Theatre. Below: Creel (center) and the cast celebrate the profane and profound joys of The Book of Mormon. Photos by Joan Marcus

Take it on faith: The Book of Mormon is every bit as profane and profound and funny and sweet as everyone says it is. The monster Broadway hit about Mormon missionaries in Uganda is now working its way around the country and just opened a sold-out, five-week run at San Francisco’s Curran Theatre as part of the SHN season.

Herewith, The Book of Theater Dogs on The Book of Mormon:

For I believe…that creators Trey Parker, Matt Stone and Robert Lopez have crafted a musical that is old-fashioned and contemporary at the same time, that is outrageous and (for the faint of heart) shocking while never roaming too far from the heartfelt center of the show. A true musical comedy in which the music is not only hummable but also energizing and exciting, Mormon inspires huge waves of laughter. You know when individual lyrics get laughs – not just punchlines and dialogue – you’re doing something right. The fact that Parker, Lopez and Stone collaborated on music, lyrics and book is fascinating and most likely accounts for expertly honed 2 1/2-hour production, which runs like a precision instrument without ever feeling cold or mechanical. Credit must also go to co-directors Parker and Casey Nicholaw, who also contributed the zesty choreography, for keeping the machine running at such an efficient clip. The only number in the entire show that doesn’t feel quite right to me, the one number that feels like something directly out of Stone and Parker’s “South Park” empire is the Act 2 “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” which needlessly goes for cheap laughs using people like Jeffrey Dahmer and Johnny Cochran.

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For I believe…amid all the silliness and the nonstop attempts to skewer everything under the pop-culture sun, there’s a serious examination of faith here – its power, its abuses and its grace. Mormons provide an easy target because they’re distinctly American, they’ve only been around for 182 years and their actual Book of Mormon (sort of a third chapter to the Bible) contains some pretty far-out stuff like God living on a planet called Kolob and the notion that there were highly evolved tribes in ancient North America and that in the three days after his crucifixion, Jesus visited this tribe. (All these examples come from the show, but they all come from the teachings.) But the point here isn’t to make fun of Mormons, well, OK, it is a little bit, but this is high-speed broadband making fun of everyone. The point is more to say something about how powerful a human being’s faith is, how a human chooses to place that faith and the responsibility of whatever person or group is the recipient of that faith. The details about the Mormon teachings are funny because they seem as sci-fi as they do sacred, but nothing detailed here is any more outrageous than say a god taking corporeal form in a manger-born baby under a bright star that attracted visitors and little drummer boys from far and wide. Faith in itself is hopeful and life-affirming and a means to connect with other humans and with the divine, whatever that may be. The Book of Mormon, for all its Broadway trappings (and the spoofs of Wicked, The Sound of Music and The King and I and The Lion King among others are kind of brilliant in and of themselves), actually has something serious to say about the care and feeding of belief.

For I believe…the touring production is every bit as good as the original Broadway production. The painted flat sets by Scott Pask, the sharp lighting by Brian MacDevitt and the nine-piece orchestra (under the musical direction of Cian McCarthy and with musical supervision and vocal arrangements by Stephen Oremus) are all in great shape. Nothing is out of place here, but that’s as it should be for tickets that reportedly cost up into the hundreds of dollars. The real charm of the show, for all its sturdy construction and technical efficiency, comes from the cast, and in leads Gavin Creel as idealistic, egotistical Elder Price and Jared Gertner as shlubby misfit Elder Cunningham, we have two performers who know exactly how to generate big laughs without going for big laughs. Creel’s animated face and startlingly long arms (seriously, like the alien at the end of Close Encounters) make him cartoonish in the best way. He can get a laugh just from smiling or widening his eyes. And his voice is golden, no more so than on the show’s centerpiece ballad, “I Believe.” Gertner’s character could be just a variation on “South Park’s” tubby, belligerent Cartman, but in the right hands, like Gertner’s, Elder Cunningham emerges as a passionate, intelligent young man with barely a trace of social skills and a desperate need for connection. Gertner is absolutely hilarious as he mangles the Mormon teachings by infusing them with Hobbits, Star Wars characters and complete nonsense that his Ugandan disciples completely take to their hearts. Creel and Gertner make a great team (the former is lanky and tall, the latter is not), and they get great support from Samantha Marie Ware as Nabulungi, an innocent Ugandan woman who “texts” using an old typewriter and Grey Henson as the gay-but-can’t-talk-about-it Elder McKinley. Henson leads the troupe on the show’s stand-out number, “Turn It Off,” an ode to deep repression that includes sparkly vests and fantastic tapping. Kevin Mambo as Nabalungi’s dad also stops the show with “Hasa Diga Eebowai,” a “Hakuna Matata” send-up that translates to “fuck you, God.”

And lo, the audiences, they did laugh. The performers, they did expend much talent and energy. And God, not seeming to mind the middle finger, decreed that the money shall pour forth, and the world of musical theater has another touchstone until the next mega-hit doth rise. I believe.

[bonus interview]
I talked to the Book of Mormon creative team and members of the touring company cast for a feature in the San Francisco Chronicle. Read the feature here.

[bonus video]
Here’s original Broadway star Andrew Rannells (now on NBC’s “The New Normal”) Elder Price’s big Act 2 number “I Believe,” sung just before an encounter with a Ugandan warlord results in the placing of The Book of Mormon in a very uncomfortable body cavity.

The Book of Mormon is sold out. Sorry. But don’t despair completely. A limited number of $29 tickets are distributed by lottery two hours before each performance. The show continues through Dec. 30 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Call (888) 746-1799 or visit www.shnsf.com.