Children's Theater of Madison has been on quite a journey this spring. To challenge their audiences and actors, the troupe chose to present a dual-language version of Disney's Aladdin (through May 19 at Overture Center's Playhouse). Spanish infuses the dialogue, song lyrics and plot, helping the performers tell a story about cultural literacy and language barriers as well as young love. There are a few bumps in the production, but overall, the experience is as fun and exciting as a magic carpet ride.
This Aladdin is a novel twist on the 20-year-old Disney film. In the movie, Agrabah is an old-fashioned kingdom where princesses cannot choose their own suitors, presumably to keep a commoner from assuming the throne. In the play, the kingdom has also been divided by language. The royalty speak Spanish, and the peasants speak English. Luckily, the animals are bilingual. The princess, Jazmin (Maria Lozonschi), has a pet tiger, Rajah (Kristin Forde), who helps her communicate with Aladdin (Joel Roberts), a "street rat" she meets during a trip to the marketplace. Aladdin has a monkey, Abu (the adorable Emma Dias), who helps him speak to her.
The young acquaintances form an instant bond by sympathizing with one another: Aladdin wishes he were better able to provide for himself, and Jazmin feels trapped by the rules imposed by her father, her culture and her social status. Soon Aladdin is thrown in prison when the authorities discover he's stolen a loaf of bread and chatted up the princess, who's not supposed to be roaming the streets. The situation seems dire until he dusts off a discarded lamp, summoning a genie (Andrew Abrams). This magical creature will grant him three wishes, with a few exceptions: No murders, no resurrections, and no love spells. And he'll ham it up for free. Now it's up to Aladdin to figure out how to reunite with Jazmin, who must choose a husband within 24 hours or be married off to an evil vizier (Jace Nichols) who's plotting to steal the throne from her father, the sultan (William Bolz).
It was nice to hear Spanish presented as the royal tongue, especially considering the offensive rhetoric that has crept into the immigration debate. It's a truly beautiful Romance language. Making English the language of peasants was also a smart choice. Throughout the performance, I thought about the privileges that come with being fluent in the language that most of our country's rich and powerful speak. Plus, it's hard enough to feel understood in one's own language and culture, as Jazmin relates throughout the play.
Watching a super-blond actor play a Middle Eastern teenager was a bit odd, but Roberts makes Aladdin likable and even more human than the animated version. Lozonschi has a nice, clear singing voice and a wonderful range of princess-appropriate expressions, from sweet Snow White smiles to sassy Merida sneers. There were a couple of pitchy moments in the duet "A Whole New World," but overall, the vocals were strong and the couple's chemistry was convincing.
Dressed in colorful vests and elaborate headwear, the ensemble was excellent in song-and-dance numbers such as "Friend Like Me," which featured an enjoyable bit of jitterbug. Abrams tied the production together with physical humor, as did the magic carpet (John Crim), with his cartwheels and toothy grin. The lighting lent the performance a desert-like haze, but things got a little too real when a puff of smoke made several audience members cough, drowning out the genie's grand entrance.
The longest stretches of Spanish dialogue were a bit hard to follow, but for the most part, the cast did an excellent job of illustrating foreign-language phrases with body language and sharing snappy, humorous translations. Though this play won't turn anyone into a Spanish speaker overnight, it imparts a few vocabulary words (libre, hermosa, vamos) and some solid lessons, like the importance of standing up for your beliefs and putting away your toys, especially if one of those toys is a magic lantern.