Disney tries out a whole new act

Is it possible to produce high-quality theater sandwiched between the Matterhorn roller coaster and 'a bug's land?' A respected opera director gives it a shot with 'ALADDIN.'

Act 1: The Announcement

Anne Hamburger paces and smiles restlessly as the crowd mills past her. The theater maven may have reason to be on edge.

The former artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse in California was hired two years ago to head the creative entertainment division at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. Today, Oct. 7, she officially announces her first production: a stage adaptation of "Aladdin." She says she has scoured the world for the best talent to produce what she calls, "a new era in theme-park entertainment."

What that means and how well it will draw in these sagging economic times is not yet clear. Park attendance is down 25 percent from a year ago, and the park's parent, The Walt Disney Co., has been hurting financially.

Nonetheless, Hamburger is upbeat about her new baby: a 40-minute version of the "Aladdin" story, using the score from Disney's animated film.

It will run continuously in the brand new "Broadway-style" Hyperion theater in Disney's ailing California Adventure Park. "We've coined a new phrase," she says, "destination entertainment."

Opera director Francesca Zambello says she has always dreamed of reaching the masses. With this project, she says, Disney has presented her with the perfect vehicle. Plus, she says, "this is a chance to work on a timeless story in a great theater."

But, is it really possible to produce high-quality theater sandwiched in-between the Matterhorn roller coaster and "a bug's land?"

Ms. Zambello says absolutely and she looks forward to bringing theater to an audience that might not otherwise ever see a live performance. The short, one-act version is a bonus.

"In a funny way, the 40-minute time frame is good," she says. "It makes you cut to what the story is and clear away anything that is wasteful or excessive." The hope, clearly, is that Zambello will re-create the same sort of alchemy that director Julie Taymor used to turn Disney's animated "The Lion King," into a Tony-winning stage sensation.

In an interview earlier the same day, Ms. Taymor herself wondered about the feasibility of doing serious theater in a theme park setting. "Why would Francesca want to do that?" she asked with a laugh.

"We will have to find our own theatrical vision," answers Zambello, acknowledging that it is a process, but one about which she is hopeful. "They've absolutely given me the artistic freedom to create something as different as Julie Taymor did."

Act 2: The Process

Zambello's first move is to review the source material, "The Arabian Nights." The first job, she says, "is to find a contemporary feel for Aladdin." He's a street urchin who becomes a sultan, she says. adding "Who can't relate to that dream?"

All the characters display qualities that flesh them out as human. "Jasmine has spunk, but also integrity and charm. Jafar," the villain of the piece, she says with a laugh, "has wit and sex appeal."

Her choreographer, Lynne Taylor-Corbett, (who choreographed the Tony-winning "Titanic"), researches belly dancing and other movements from the period. Zambello also immerses herself in the score and the animated film. The goal, she says, "is to find the human scale inside the large story."

In a large rehearsal room on the back lot, one of the multiple casts (there are two Aladdins) gathers to rehearse. "Pull it back a bit," says Zambello to Jafar, "give me the flirtatious version." Then she adds, "Remember, we talked about giving Iago a little look for a sense of danger?"

Today's Aladdin mutters to himself, "That last moment's not feeling right to me." Behind them, the onion domes of Moscow's Red Square drift past on a dolly, an elaborate 30-foot snake lies in pieces in a corner, multicolored shoes bristle from a prop box. It's hard to imagine the final product, but it will clearly be colorful.

In an extremely rough run through in November, it becomes clear that the show will hew closely to the Disney film. Just as in the movie, the genie - who was voiced with manic improvisational skill by Robin Williams - provides the comedic anchor.

In this production, Nick Santa Maria, who says he came up through the L.A. comedy scene at the same time as Williams, puts out the same high-speed shtick, with updates.

"You've just been voted off the island," he says to Iago, the bird, as he tosses him aside at the end. As for reaching today's audiences, it would be hard to assemble a more multicultural group, with Asians playing Aladdin and Jasmine and an African-American Jafar.

There are some additions. Hamburger brought in the original composer, Alan Menken, who has penned a new song for the Princess Jasmine. He is unfazed by the prospect of putting on his work in a theme park. "The opportunity in a theme park is the same as anywhere else," he says. "You can introduce people to serious and beautiful theater craft."

Act 3: The Show

The moment of truth has finally arrived. Long theme-park lines standing in the Anaheim sun don't exactly set a "night-at-the-theater" tone for what are being called "previews." But then, in contrast to the expectations created in the weeks leading up to this moment, neither does much of what unfolds inside either.

The empty orchestra pit is the first hint that the creative team behind this magic carpet ride is a few camels short of a real Broadway bazaar.

Scene after scene - complete with cartoonish backdrops - looks as if they were lifted directly from the animated film, including a magic carpet ride over miniatures of world monuments (think a teeny Eiffel Tower).

"The radical reinterpretation is not there," says Tom Bradac, artistic director of Shakespeare Orange County, sitting in a nearby café after the show. "Theater is all about metaphor," he says. "We know it's not supposed to be real, so the more literal the show, the less effective the storytelling."

The splashy numbers are overproduced, he says, like Vegas-style spectacles. The big crowd-pleaser, a soaring magic carpet that flies above the audience's heads, creates an odd disconnect because the Aladdin and Jasmine on the carpet are quite clearly stunt doubles for the performers. But the show makes no effort to hide this fact.

And, then there's the taped accompaniment. "There is clearly money being spent, but not on the right things," says Mr. Bradac. "Good theater is about connections between the actors and the audience. This show is about money."

Not everyone agrees. Mary Fortezzo of Eureka, Calif., has just taken her five boys to the show and couldn't be more content. "We don't get much theater in our little town," she says with a laugh. She would like her boys to see more culture, and "Aladdin" is a real opportunity.

"I'm from the East Coast," she adds with a smile. "I know what real theater is, and this was just great."

Her husband, Greg, nods in agreement. "Everything about it was just first-rate," he says.

Both Hamburger and Zambello scoff at the suggestion that money - not art - was the draw for them. "Francesca was booked for five years when I first met her," says Hamburger.

Zambello adds that her vision has not been tampered with by anyone outside the production.

Cynthia Harriss, president of the Disneyland resort, may provide a clue to Disney's Corp. real goal for the show. "We have always been leaders in entertainment for children," she says. " 'Aladdin' is part of that long-term plan."

That makes sense, says Bradac. This show is more Disney on Ice than Broadway. "I'm sure the show will be a hit in the park, but that's the only place it can find an audience. If they tried to move this to a real theater, it would not survive a single day."

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