The Past is in the Past: Musings on Frozen – July 28, 2018

Throughout Broadway history, musicals have as its source material derive from other media – literature (Les Miserables), films (Sunset Boulevard) or (in recent years) the song catalog of a singer or band, of which either relates the life story of the singer (Beautiful) or band (Jersey Boys) or creates an original story using the artist’s songs (American Idiot). Another source for Broadway musicals is Disney, both live action and animated films, though the blueprint of the modern Disney animated films are structured like Broadway musicals (so much so that my first impression of Beauty and the Beast film was that it could be adapted to the stage – and it was Disney’s first sojourn on the Great White Way). The degree of success of these adaptations vary – some have a fervent fan base, while (most) critics are less than enthusiastic; some are critically acclaimed but divide the fandom, and sometimes a musical is loved by critics and fans alike (though perhaps not to the same degree). It does seem in the past decade or so, there have been too many film adaptations (of which have a built-in fandom) on Broadway (or coming to Broadway) to the point that it seems to get a show produced on Broadway, one would need to make a film first, build a fan base and (hope) there’s interest in a stage adaptation. Many of the recent film adaptations seemed odd, as they were not necessarily suited to be a stage musical; that commercial theatre has lived up to its name, with art and originality waiting in the wings (often way off-Broadway) struggling to find its way in.

But I digress.

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The focus of this entry is on the latest Disney animated film adaptation of Frozen, which is based on the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Snow Queen” that tells the story of two sisters and the calamity wrought by suppressing one’s true nature. While I had enjoyed the animated film, I was wary of its stage adaptation, as the magical visual effects displayed in two-dimensional animation would seem tricky to achieve in a three-dimensional real world. Nevertheless, I obtained tickets via a fellow theatergoer whom I met a year earlier through another musical who had won the online lottery and was not able to go. One of my cardinal rules around theatergoing is to never turn down free (or discounted) tickets, and despite my initial reservations, I was still intrigued at how the stage production could capture the essence of the animated film. Disney does it fair share of adapting fairy tales for their animated films, and while the source material for Frozen was “The Snow Queen”, it seemed to me that it took some inspiration from another popular Broadway musical – Wicked.

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The film Frozen ran a little under two hours, and the stage production added about another hour to its run time (to keep with the length of a typical musical, but the new songs and scenes that were added took away from the urgency of the plot and didn’t quite fit the tone of the songs that were in the film. Nevertheless, the staging was spectacular – lighting, costumes and set design had that Disney vibe, though my vantage point was on the far right orchestra, so there were times where my viewpoint was obstructed. The cast was wonderful – Alyssa Fox (understudy for Caissie Levy) was fantastic as Elsa, capturing her conflicted nature, as was Patti Murin as the energetic and impulsive Anna. Their character dynamic did remind me of Elphaba and Glinda (the fact that both women played those roles respectively at some point in their careers, so the impression was not unfounded…).

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The stage door experience was fun, with many young girls dressed up as Elsa waiting at the stage door with their parents (a pair of tiny Elsas sat behind me, enjoying the show). Most of the ensemble came out to sign playbills, take photos and interact with those waiting.

My criticisms have little to do with the cast or production team but more with how (and where) to add to a story that was well constructed as a feature length animated film. I can understand the constructs of a stage musical and that to replicate the film on stage would be unwise (after all “Let It Go” was inevitably destined going to be the Act One closer) but for me, the stage adaptation left me a bit underwhelmed by the overall experience.

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On a Magic Carpet Ride: Musings on Aladdin – October 31, 2015

Disney animated films have always masqueraded as movie musicals, especially those that were released in the 1990s. The majority of them have transferred from the screen to the [Broadway] stage, albeit with varying degrees of success (and if this pattern continues, I sincerely hope there will be a stage adaptation of Mulan or Hercules on Broadway sometime in the near future). The most recent screen to stage adaptation is Aladdin, currently playing at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Per usual, I obtained tickets via the TDF ticket raffle table at the BC/EFA Flea Market & Auction, and quasi-continues a tradition of my seeing a Broadway show on Halloween night, though this year I managed to schedule a double header (i.e. two shows in one day, though technically speaking it wasn’t the “traditional” matinee and evening performance, as the first show was the already blogged about Drunk Shakespeare, whose performance started at 4pm). I’ve always been a fan of Disney animated films (who hasn’t?) and had enjoyed the screen to stage adaptations (or at least the ones I had an opportunity to see), and while I know the stage adaptation can’t be “just like” the film (for the obvious reasons), it’s always interesting to see what changes (additions, omissions and adjustments) are made, and what remains the same, and how it effects the story.

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While it’s been several years since I last watched the animated film, the overall look and spirit of the story remains intact: the tale of a princess and the “street rat” yearning to be more than what society expects them to be, the villain wanting ultimate power and the genie who just wants to be free. The stage adaptation has a handful of new songs, with the music by Alan Menken (who wrote the songs for the film) and lyrics by David Zippel, Stephen Schwartz and Glenn Slater, as well as new characters (Babkak, Omar and Kassim, three of Aladdin’s friends, presumably to compensate for the loss of Abu, Aladdin’s monkey sidekick in the film). There’s an additional (emotional) subplot revolving the memory of Aladdin’s mother, highlighted in “Proud of Your Boy” (one of the new songs). And of course, there’s a lot more singing and dancing in the stage adaptation, which is visually stunning, and expertly performed. I’m not quite as enamored on the new subplot/sidekicks, while it brings about a good deal of character development and (some) exposition, it seems out of place with the overall story, with some of it is reminiscent of other Disney animated films. The same can be said of most of the new songs – they don’t seem to live in the same “sound world” as the songs from the film, and faintly reminded me of other (recognizable, Alan Menken-penned songs).

Aladdin Halloween night cast list

That being said, the standout moments came in the form of the Genie, expertly played by James Monroe Iglehart, with just about the same amount of pizzazz and sassiness as the late, great Robin Williams (who played the role of the Genie in the film). The energy he exuded was palpable and his numbers nearly (literally) stopped the show – ‘twas a Tony-worthy performance. While I was miffed that Jonathan Freedman (who originated the role of Jafar in the film) was out, his understudy, James Moye, was fantastic, with just the right amount of villainy without making it too campy, well supported by Don Darryl Rivera as Iago, (a nice change that he was played as a human rather than as a parrot, as that character was in the film). The rest of the cast, including leads Adam Jacobs (in the titular role) and Courtney Reed as Jasmine, were great. The choreography was stunning as was the overall set design, with its warm, lush colors. “A Whole New World”, complete with the flying carpet did not disappoint and was as magical as it was in the film.

The stage door scene was not as busy per usual – I’m not sure if that was because it was Halloween night and the departing audience wanted to partake in the various Halloween festivities, yet the cast came out, chatting amicably with those who were waiting at the stage door, taking photos and signing playbills.

Clockwise from top left: Adam Jacobs, Courtney Reed, James Monroe Iglehart and James Moye

Clockwise from top left: Adam Jacobs, Courtney Reed, James Monroe Iglehart and James Moye

Despite my somewhat mixed impression of the show, I had a great time, and would recommend it to those who enjoyed the film and also enjoy the previous Broadway adaptation of Disney animated films. It’s always a magical experience seeing a Disney show on Broadway.

Aladdin signed playbill

With Every Job When It’s Complete, There’s a Sense of Bittersweet: Musings on the Final Performance of Mary Poppins – March 3, 2013

A little Disney magic has left Broadway with the closing of Mary Poppins, though not before entertaining four million theatergoers both young and old for 2,619 performances during its six-year run at the New Amsterdam Theatre. Of the stage adaptations of Disney films, Mary Poppins is perhaps my favorite of the ones I had seen, and remains one of my favorite Disney films. As I had written roughly two months ago, I was saddened to hear of its closing (though if rumors are to believed, the next show to occupy the New Amsterdam Theater is Aladdin, so perhaps a bit of Disney magic will return to Broadway soon). Even though the LED marquee boasted that the final performance was sold out, I was able to obtain a ticket at the box office [the show was not listed on TKTS] sitting mid mezzanine (center). Indeed it was a full house, with a good percentage of the audience comprised of young children and their parents.

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There were cheers at the very start and throughout, with massive ovations after every musical number, with a few in the mezzanine section giving a standing ovation after “Step in Time” (myself included). The cast was fantastic, giving it their all as they have at every performance – the only notable indications that it was the final performance was during “Step in Time” with Nicolas Dromard (as Bert) delivering his line (upside down after tap dancing up the perimeter of the stage) “One Last Time” instead of the usual “Step in Time”, and Steffanie Leigh (as Mary Poppins) singing her final verse with great emotion before ascending to the heavens for the last time. After the curtain call and a final reprise of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, Thomas Schumacher, President of Disney Theatrical Group, came out to thank the audience for their support and introduced to the stage the backstage crew as well as many of the children who had played Jane and Michael Banks (there have been 42 different children playing those two roles during the six-year run). Also acknowledged were several former cast members in the audience, including original cast members Ashley Brown and Rebecca Luker, and Christian Borle, before introducing to the stage (among others) musical supervisor David Caddick and composer Richard Sherman, who, with his brother Robert, wrote the original songs for Mary Poppins.

Mary Poppins final curtain call - forefront (from left to right): Elizabeth Teeter, Karl Kenzler, Steffanie Leigh, & Nicolas Dromard

Mary Poppins final curtain call – forefront (from left to right): Elizabeth Teeter, Karl Kenzler, Steffanie Leigh, & Nicolas Dromard

 

Curtain Call - forefront: Richard Sherman & Thomas Schumacher

Curtain Call – forefront: Richard Sherman & Thomas Schumacher

There was a respectable crowd at the stage door (I suspect had it not been a chilly evening, the crowds would have been larger), waiting to greet the cast and show their appreciation. Despite the cold and the wind, the crowd waited and as the cast came out, there were hugs and conversations aplenty, with great appreciation from the cast of the crowd that remained waiting a little over an hour, along with the usual signing of playbills, posters and programs and posing for photos.

All in all, it was a magical experience to witness, though I must say that I’ve (sadly) seen too many closing performances of shows I love over the years. Then again, perhaps Mary Poppins’s job on Broadway is complete, and the show is needed elsewhere. Maybe we’ve got to get through things now on our own, but one this is for sure – like the Banks family, I’ll never forget Mary Poppins.

Final Mary Poppins playbill signed

 

Like Something is Brewing and ‘Bout to Begin: Thoughts on Mary Poppins

It’s pretty much a well-known fact that Disney is synonymous with magic – that magical quality that leaves visitors to their various theme parks as well as those who have watched their films in a state of gleeful wonder. The same can also be said for the young and the young at heart that experience a stage adaptation of their films. Mary Poppins has a wealth of this Disney magic, coupled with a heartwarming tale of a disjointed family finding their way back to one another with some guidance from that “practically perfect” nanny. While it has been a few years since I last saw the production, the announcement that the show would be closing on March 3, 2013 prompted me to write this blog – I fully intend to return to see the show, and perhaps also attend the final performance.

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The first time I saw Mary Poppins was on October 4, 2007, roughly a year into its run playing at the New Amsterdam Theatre – I had obtained a ticket (per usual in the Fall) via the TDF ticket raffle table at the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Flea Market & Auction. The film has always been one of my favorite Disney films, and I had been looking forward to seeing how it would be adapted for the stage and the changes that were required for the stage. Firstly, there were new songs written for the stage, some added/changed lyrics to the existing songs and some of the songs that were in the film were not included in the stage production. Also, while the overall story remains the same, some elements were changed to bring the tone a few shades darker (but not too much, after all, this still a Disney tale) than the film, which was more whimsical; the changes were necessary and made sense for a two act musical, and probably would not have worked as well for the film.

The scenic design was astounding, with the set of No. 17 Cherry Tree Lane moving fluidly from the living room to the children’s nursery and then to the rooftop, as well as the inventive 3D appearance of the bank at which Mr. Banks works, and the fanciful park sequence during “Jolly Holiday”. The choreography was also amazing, especially the sequences for “Step in Time” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”. To this day, I am perplexed how Spring Awakening won the Tony Award for Best Choreography over Mary Poppins. For the record, I did see Spring Awakening, and found much of the choreography lacking, as it looked (to me at least) like the cast was randomly flailing around the stage. I have been informed by friends are knowledgeable about such things that the choreography for Spring Awakening was an example of modern dance; I suppose I’m more old school about stage choreography.

But I digress.

As expected, there were many magical moments that were recreated on stage as they had been in the film, such as Mary Poppins’ “it’s bigger on the inside” carpet bag from where a multitude of items are extracted, and the aforementioned dance sequence for “Step in Time” (with an added thrill of Bert tap dancing up the side of the proscenium of the stage and upside down), and of course the most magical moment of all (and I’m pretty sure everyone has either seen the stage production or the TV commercial for the musical, so it’s not that much of a spoiler) – Mary Poppins making her final exit by flying across the stage, then above the audience. I will say that I had not seen the TV commercial (and I don’t think that bit was included in the commercial) and I vividly remember being absolutely awestruck the first time I saw this – while I had seen her fly across the stage earlier in the show, I had been truly unprepared (though I probably should have deduced it would happen) to see her actually fly (and of course, she was on a wire, which was visible from the lighting around her) above the audience from the stage to the balcony.

The casts I’ve seen were astounding and truly look like they’re having the time of their lives on stage – Ashley Brown and Gavin Lee, the original Mary Poppins and Bert were amazing and had a great rapport with one another. Their respective successors, Laura Michelle Kelly (who had originated the role in London) and Christian Borle were equally amazing. I did not stage door that night, but did on my subsequent visits to the show – the stage door experiences were always wonderful, with mostly young children (more girls than boys on the occasions I’ve waited at the stage door) and their parents. The cast was always happy to sign playbills, chat with the kids and pose for photos.

Clockwise from top left: Ashley Brown, Gavin Lee, Christian Borle & Laura Michelle Kelly

Clockwise from top left: Ashley Brown, Gavin Lee, Christian Borle & Laura Michelle Kelly

It’s a shame that the show is closing, though six years is a respectable run (especially in this day and age when some productions have significantly shorter runs) – it’s one of the few family friendly musicals remaining on Broadway, and its six-year run is a testament to its longevity. I have a feeling that when Mary Poppins flies off into the night for the last time on March 3, 2013, a little of that Disney magic will also be leaving Broadway.