‘Aladdin’ Touring Production Charms With Old-Fashioned Theater Magic

Touring Company of 'Aladdin' Charms With
Courtesy of Courtesy of Disney Theatrical Productions

When the flying carpet at “Aladdin” gets a standing ovation, you know you’ve done something right. The musical, which runs at Hollywood’s Pantages Theatre until March 31, boasts some spectacular scenery, starting with the opening sequence in the bazaar and including the Cave of Wonders, the flying carpet and the magical finale.

“It’s all just old-fashioned tricks,” says production designer Bob Crowley, though he refuses to reveal how it’s done. “I will go to my grave with that secret.”

Crowley believes that “live theater has become the last place where magic happens. Film is too literal — and I love film.” But with live theater “you are taking a magic carpet ride and having a good time. The genie is the emcee, and the audience colludes with him.”

Long before “Aladdin” came to Los Angeles, during the show’s planning stages, Crowley sat with Disney Theatricals execs, director Casey Nicholaw and the below-the-line crew to discuss which pieces to highlight.

“I wanted the finale to be like theIt’s a Small World ride at Disney,” says Gregg Barnes, the tuner’s costume designer. “It was a very direct metaphor for how I would approach the palace scene.”

Among the highlights that Barnes and his team created were the finale with the vizier who goes through quick costume changes. “One of the things we added when Jafar becomes sultan and then genie, his costume went from black to white,” says Barnes. “We didn’t have him turn it into the red in the beginning [of the run]. It had to happen quickly.”

“Aladdin” has toured Japan, Australia and the U.K. It moves to Denver after its L.A. run. “I work with people to give the audience on tour the Broadway experience,” Crowley says. “They’re paying their hard-earned money. No one I know wants to give less than 150%.”

Improved technology helps. Legit has borrowed from the world of rock ’n’ roll so that the same lighting the show used on Broadway can travel, because it’s on pre-hung trusses and doesn’t take as long for technicians to put up. “We’re not taking a step back in any way,” says lighting designer Natasha Katz. “To move lights, someone used to go up a ladder; now it’s all done by computer.”

More than ever, road companies are just as lavish as Broadway in costume design, scenery and lights, says Crowley, who adds, “Disney is generous with the budget but not profligate. If they see a good idea, they’ll back it.”

Barnes says the team has tweaked the process to enable the show to travel more easily. “For being on the road, even though it looks, I think, spectacular, we learned little tricks so the day workers don’t have to come in to maintain everything,” he explains. “Hand-painted stuff is now done digitally.”

Katz says the lessons learned from touring pay off on Broadway too. “We knew what the essence of the show was, but what about if we make this smaller and lighter? Even if it’s not touring, it makes it better,” she says. “The irony of this ‘Aladdin’: We’ve done so many versions before the touring versions that there are things that are better than New York, shinier than in New York, thinner and lighter. Things may look like heavy gold, but they can travel.”