“Just a kid from Akron”; A Northeast Ohio native returning home to an incredible reception; one of the hardest working and most talented people in his chosen field. Did you guess LeBron James? INCORRECT! The current touring production of Disney’s Aladdin stars Marcus M. Martin, an Akron, Ohio native and Baldwin Wallace University graduate in the show-stealing role of Genie.
Martin introduces the show’s story with “Arabian Nights,” the same tune that opened both the 1992 animated and 2019 live-action versions of Aladdin. Martin immediately showcases his powerful vocal chops and knack for a humorous delivery when the script called for it.
The Tony Award-winning Casey Nicholaw-directed show features music by the same composer from the films, Alan Menken, with lyrics from Howard Ashman, story author Chad Begulein, and legendary lyricist (and frequent partner of Andrew Lloyd Webber), Tim Rice. Five of the films’ most prominent sing-along numbers (as well as other snippets) appear in this production and are mixed together with original songs written specifically for the stage version.
While Martin’s story began in Akron, Aladdin’s story begins in Agrabah. Appearing solo onstage, Genie introduces the audience to the fictitious town with the opening number “Arabian Nights” (although the song in this stage show has lyrics that slightly deviate from the film versions). The curtain opened behind Martin and he was joined by the ensemble alongside some of the show’s most prominent characters, which included the evil villain, Jafar (Anand Nagraj), and his sidekick, Iago (Aaron Choi).
In a pre-show interview with CleveRock. Choi noted that one of the biggest takeaways the audience will have from the show is how colorful the set is. This is evident from the first scene and a constant throughout both acts. The colors were, in one word: STUNNING. In two words: ABSOLUTELY STUNNING! The costumes, the lighting, the backdrops, and the props all contributed to making the stage beautiful and bright.
Aladdin (Adi Roy) enters for the second number, “One Jump Ahead,” where he is on the run from overzealous men with swords trying to kill him for stealing from vendors in the market. The crafty “street rat” escapes trouble (as per usual) before singing “Proud of Your Boy” (a song that debuted in the Broadway production), during which we learn that Aladdin is orphaned and reveals his desire to live a wholesome life that would have made his mother proud.
Jasmine, the show’s princess, played by Senzel Ahmady (who is every bit as gorgeous as she is talented) enters the show, showing the character’s fierce independence and sassy attitude as she rejects a prince who has traveled to seek her hand in marriage.
Disappointing fans of all ages, Aladdin’s monkey sidekick, Abu is absent from the Broadway script. In his place, Aladdin’s three friends, Babkak (played this evening by standby J. Andrew Speas), Omar (played tonight by understudy Joshua Kenneth Allen Johnson), and Kassim (Colt Prattes) — who looks like a shorter version of recently departed Cleveland Cavalier, Kevin Love. While perhaps not as endearing as Abu (who can compete with an adorable monkey?), Aladdin’s sidekicks can sing and dance better than any puppetry Disney could have incorporated into the show.
Aladdin and his pals decide to become buskers (“Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim”) where the four actors showcased their dancing abilities to routines choreographed by Nicholaw.
Ahmady returns to perform a beautiful duet with Roy (“A Million Miles Away”) when Jasmine visits the market disguised as a commoner and immediately forms a connection with Aladdin before trouble engulfs both of them.
Meanwhile, Jafar and Iago (who is a human in this production as opposed to the parrot from the 1992 film) crack open a book of evil secrets and learn about the Cave of Wonders, where a lamp containing Genie resides. The catch? The lamp can only be retrieved by the chosen “diamond in the rough.” (That would be Aladdin). Nagraj and Choi remain perfect villain-like characters while adding comedic value with their impeccable timing and delivery of funny anecdotes throughout the show. One of the funnier moments in Act One comes when Jafar reluctantly agrees to allow Iago to join in an evil laugh with him to end the scene.
Aladdin reluctantly enters the Cave of Wonders at the insistence of Jafar, who promises to reward him handsomely for his efforts. After breaking the rule of not touching anything but the lamp, Aladdin finds himself trapped in the cave. Re-enter Martin as the Genie, who is summoned from the lamp.
When Aladdin quizzes Genie on where he came from, Martin adlibbed by announcing that he is from Akron, drawing cheers and applause from the audience.
Martin’s vocal and dancing talents were prevalent during the show-stopping highlight, “Friend Like Me.” The film versions included voicing from the late Robin Williams and the now-disgraced Will Smith in the role of Genie. These big shoes were no challenge for Martin to fill. Under the tutelage of Vicky Bussert, the director of Baldwin Wallace’s Musical Theater program, Martin turned his natural talent into becoming the star of this national touring production shortly after graduating college. Any fan of a local success story couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear. Family and friends of Martin were seated by this reviewer and all of their faces lit up brighter than the stage as he sang and danced his way through this number, showcasing his versatile voice that switched on a dime from sounding similar to Williams before changing to a Peabo Bryson like vibe. Starring in a national production right out of college sets the bar high for an actor and makes climbing the success ladder difficult after starting on one of the rungs. If anyone can move on from this role to even bigger things, it’s Marcus!
Genie turns Aladdin into a prince as his first of three wishes, and Act Two starts with Martin again shining again on “Prince Ali,” and is backed by the incredibly talented ensemble. This colorful scene is another one of the show’s highlights, due in part to the audience’s familiarity with the song from the films.
“A Whole New World,” the show’s defacto theme song, brings out the all-too-mysterious Disney magic as Aladdin and Jasmine were “soaring, tumbling, free-wheeling” on a magic carpet ride that, through some thoughtful effects and lighting trickery, appeared to be free-floating above the stage. At last, Jasmine had fallen in love (albeit with an imposture Prince of the fictitious land of Ababwa.)
Trouble follows Aladdin as he struggles with the options of continuing his facade as a prince or telling Jasmine the truth. Things unravel quickly after Jafar realizes his true identity and reveals Aladdin’s lies prior to the royal wedding.
While the first act seemed a bit drawn out, Act Two moves quickly and wraps up somewhat abruptly as the story, true to Disney form, ends with the demise of the villainous Jafar, the arrest of his sidekick, and the “happily ever moment” for Aladdin and Jasmine.
This “shining, shimmering, splendid” production is one not to miss. Although, if you don’t have tickets, it will take a genie to get you into the show, which has only single seats remaining for this upcoming weekend. (Why this popular show is only in town for five days remains a mystery!)
To end the night, following the curtain call, Ahmady invited all of the women in the cast as well as those working behind the scenes to join her onstage to be recognized for International Women’s Day. It truly was a treat to see a show with so many female members both onstage and behind the scenes receive well-deserved appreciation from the sold-out audience.