There are two ways to make magic onstage: literally, with traps and lifts and flash powder, or metaphorically, with our limitless imaginations taking the place of costly gizmos.
The national tour of Disney's "Mary Poppins," which closed last weekend at Belk Theater, supplied the jaw-dropping type of effects. The Children's Theatre of Charlotte production of Disney's "Aladdin," which had only a fraction of the stage space and budget, tickles our fancies in subtler ways and proves that both routes can get us to a fantasy-filled destination.
But where "Poppins" amplified the original motion picture, "Aladdin" compresses it to about an hour. The results will please smaller children or people with short attention spans, but it made me feel I'd been rushed out of the theater.
An example: In the 1992 movie, evil vizier Jafar realizes Aladdin is the only person who can get access to the Cave of Wonders and bring back the lamp containing an all-powerful genie. He dupes the boy into entering the cave, tries to kill him and leaves him there.
In the play, Jafar orders his second-in-command to lock Aladdin in a dungeon. But the dungeons are "full," so Aladdin is locked in a private cave Jafar has filled with treasure - including the lamp, which must have gotten there by accident, as Jafar doesn't know its power. This kind of storytelling speeds up the plot but drives it perilously close to stupidity.
The writing doesn't prevent director Stephen Gundersheim and his appealing, fresh-faced cast from making the most of the limited material. (They're smart enough to realize that, if you don't have 75 golden camels, you cut the line about 75 golden camels.)
Erik N. D'Esterre's resourceful, even virile Aladdin goes well with Cassandra Howley Wood's spunky Jasmine, who wants only to accept the suitor of her choosing. (Wanting more than that - say, to run the kingdom after the sultan dies - is not on the books here.)
Small roles are filled with care: Caroline Farley's Abu and Sam Faulkner's Magic Carpet put over sweet personalities in mime, and Olivia Edge makes a strong-voiced narrator. The jaunty genie doesn't get nearly enough stage time but earned a roar of approval from the crowd because of Jalila A. Bowie's broad, rollicking portrayal.
Ron Chisholm's choreography nicely merged Middle Eastern motifs with Vegas-style riffs, and Drina Keen's orchestra was even tighter than usual (though, if you sat near a speaker, often too forceful.)
Gundersheim did thoughtful things, such as providing wristlets that linked the three main characters thematically: The genie wore shackles, Aladdin leather bands and Jasmine bracelets, because all are powerless within their stations. Bigger things came off, too: Young kids "ooohed" when the flying carpet went airborne.
By targeting them so directly, this production represents a sea change at Children's Theatre. The last three openers - "The Wizard of Oz," "Peter Pan" and "Beauty and the Beast" - were nearly full-length productions that gave the feel of the originals. "Aladdin" is a highlights reel from a masterful piece of storytelling - smart, spirited, but skimpy.