Review: Tom Rodriguez is big surprise in 'Aladdin'

By Vladimir Bunoan,

Posted at Nov 18 2012 04:46 PM | Updated as of Nov 19 2012 11:56 PM

Tom Rodriguez and K-La Rivera headline the new stage musical "Aladdin."

MANILA, Philippines – Although much of the pre-opening publicity for the new stage musical “Aladdin” centered on singer-actress Aiza Seguerra as the Genie, the final offering of Atlantis Productions for the year will ultimately remembered as the stage debut of former “Pinoy Big Brother” housemate Tom Rodriguez.

In fact, several audience members even gave Rodriguez a standing ovation during the opening night of "Aladdin" at the Meralco Theater last Friday.

Rodriguez, whose showbiz career failed to truly take off despite attracting attention on the hit reality show, may have found a new career in theater and “Aladdin” just might be the magic carpet that will take him to stardom.

In the title role, Rodriguez showed off a strong stage presence and, surprisingly, a pleasing singing voice with just the right amount of technique to bring to life the cartoon hero of the hit 1992 Disney film. He also exhibited a natural flair for the stage, interacting with his more seasoned co-stars with ease and even confidence.

Although “Aladdin” is generally a lightweight show, Rodriguez gave it the necessary charm and his vocals on the solo “Proud of Your Boy” and the famous duet “A Whole New World” with K-La Rivera as Princess Jasmine, were among the musical’s highlights.

Far from the movie version

Filipino theater fans were treated to the new stage musical ahead of a planned Broadway opening. “Aladdin” had its premiere in Seattle -- another production was mounted in St. Louis – where it received lukewarm reviews.

Much of the criticism centered on the show’s book by Chad Beguelin, which deviated significantly from the movie. For one, the animal characters were all dropped – don’t expect to see Abu, the pet monkey; while Iago, the parrot, is now Jafar’s human sidekick.

Apparently, the songwriting team of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman initially conceived “Aladdin” in the lines of the classic Bob Hope-Bing Crosby “on the road” movies but this was supposedly changed when Robin Williams signed up to voice the Genie. For the stage version, they brought the original concept back. As such, the musical is more of an old-fashioned cornball comedy with a merry band of musicians – Aladdin is the fourth member – who also acts as the narrators.

After leading the opening number “Arabian Nights,” they formally introduced themselves in the song "Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim." Jamie Wilson, Bibo Reyes and Johann dela Fuente were obviously hampered by the corny puns and in-theater jokes, especially in the first part. Fortunately they were given more to do beyond moving the story during the scene changes and the highly physical comedy of “High Adventure” would fit right in a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta – at best.

This dilemma actually mirrors the problem with the entire musical, which was often just too corny (one reviewer in the US remarked that it feels like it was written by Fozzie Bear of “The Muppet Show”) for adults, although the kids – and the more casual theatergoer -- will probably be swept by the production values.

Visual delight

Indeed, directors Bobby Garcia and Chari Arespachoga pumped up the visuals for “Aladdin.” Set designer Lex Marcos created sparkling mosaics for the proscenium arches and columns from recycled items like soda cans, bottle caps, glass shards and other scraps. He also used this “found art” aesthetic to imagine the Cave of Wonders, which appeared initially as an animated video projection with the voice of Jett Pangan.

The cast was also paraded in ornate, colorful costumes, especially for the “Prince Ali” numbers, which opened Act Two.

Then there’s the much-awaited flying carpet sequence for “A Whole New World” with Rodriguez and Rivera floating onstage against fake stars. The scene still does wonders and would sweep away even the more jaded audience members. (Although I actually preferred the new duet “A Million Miles Away,” which the two sang on a rooftop – actually standing on moveable blocks that resemble buildings. These wheeled blocks were earlier utilized well in staging the chase scene through the marketplace.)

The entrances of the Genie, with the proverbial puff of smoke, were predictable – except for one part where Seguerra appeared in the orchestra pit. (Speaking of the orchestra, hats off to musical director Ceejay Javier for achieving that full, big band sound.)

Seguerra (Genie will be played by Calvin Millado in certain performances) and the directors tried their best to veer away from Williams’ widely praised performance in the movie to avoid comparisons. While images from the US productions showed the actor playing the Genie in blue face makeup and pointy ears, Seguerra simply wore a blue-sequined suit and turban and spoke with an African-American rapper accent. (Think of her portrayal of Gary Coleman in “Avenue Q.”) Seguerra gave a kid-friendly performance, toning down Williams’ manic, stand-up comedy delivery with delicious pop references, which can be understandably disappointing to some.

Still her numbers “Friend Like Me” and the new song “Somebody’s Got Your Back” were energetic numbers patterned after the best Disney show-stoppers although it fell short of the theatrical spectacle of “Under the Sea” in “The Little Mermaid,” staged by Atlantis at around this time last year.

Romance clicks

But at least the romance of “Aladdin” worked, thanks to chemistry between Rodriguez and Rivera, who gave a more modern, adult take on a Disney princess. Rivera’s Jasmine isn’t just strong-willed but can be a real bitch, if she wants to. Even Rodriguez played Aladdin not as a teenaged boy, which created some sort of sexual tension between the characters.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that Jafar’s yearning for Jasmine was not tackled in the stage version. As Jafar, Raul Montesa’s solid bass was put to good use, although he could add a bit more devilish spice to Jafar.

Clearly, “Aladdin” has flaws that need some serious reworking if it aims to make it on Broadway. The creators could get some ideas from Atlantis’ version in terms of the staging and even characterization but the lame jokes really have to go.

“Aladdin” runs until December 9 at the Meralco Theater.