A new production of “Aladdin Jr.” made its Southern California debut last weekend when Frank LaGuardia’s Hillcrest Players, a summer musical camp for performers 16 and under, staged the show at Newbury Park High School. Four separate casts of 11- to 16-year-olds were featured during last weekend’s shows, with 6- to 10-year-olds performing this weekend, July 13, 14 and 15.
The stage edition of “Aladdin Jr.,” a condensed version of Disney’s 1992 animated feature film produced especially for younger performers, made its debut in 2005. When the Broadway version was mounted in 2014, several songs by composers Howard Ashman and Alan Menken that were not in the film were added, all of which are now included in the Jr. version.
Gone are the five narrators who roll out a red carpet and do celebrity chit-chatty interviews with the Agrabah townsfolk. In their place is one single narrator, solidly played by Ava Carver, who introduces the main characters and leads the ensemble in the opening production number, “Arabian Nights.”
The evening performance on July 7 featured an impressive cast led by Jack Levi as Aladdin and Mika Silander as Princess Jasmine. Both exhibited charming, well-tuned voices, with Silander especially vibrant on her solo, “These Palace Walls.”
One of the songs added to the Jr. version is “Proud of Your Boy,” a touching paean sung by Aladdin to his mother that was cut from the film after the character of Aladdin’s mother was removed. The song reveals Aladdin to be basically a good soul with a moral center but explains how extreme poverty has led him to petty thievery.
Jasmine is Disney’s first modern princess, an Arabian feminist who preaches socialistic equality for all and yearns for a classless society. Silander plays this aspect to the hilt, as Jasmine rejects Aladdin’s advances even after he wishes himself into becoming a full-fledged prince in hopes of impressing her.
Aladdin’s thieving cohorts, Babkak, Omar and Kassim were played, respectively, by Ariela Behar, Emily Chier and Hayley Shukiar, all of whom contributed finessed theatricality in their three production numbers. The best of these was “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim,” another of the restored songs, in which the quartet promises to turn over a new leaf and cease their thieving ways.
Jafar, the evil grand vizier, and his snippy sidekick, Iago, are now the principal bad guys of the show, with the role of Razoul, the sadistic captain of the guard, reduced. Lucas Wienken plays Jafar with appropriate menace, while pint-sized Ethan Milburn, looking like a cross between an Ozian winged monkey and a miniature gargoyle, delighted the audience with a stiff waddle walk and a strangled voice that reminded me of famed character actor Peter Lorre.
The many production numbers were the visual highlights of the show, with challenging choreography designed by Leasa Shukiar and LaGuardia. The songs also efforts of vocal coach Shauna Babbitt.
The most vaunted number, “Friend Like Me,” capped off Act I with the introduction of the Genie, played by Josh Moore, who did a fine job with his character’s glib-hip dialogue. Ben Wainwright gave the character of the Sultan its proper gravitas, while Princess Jasmine’s ladiesin waiting were well-played by Aedyn Frederichsen, Laurel Eith and Pariya Bradaran.
The show’s signature ballad, “A Whole New World,” beautifully sung by Levi and Silander atop an elevating magic carpet, was a ravishing feast for the eyes and ears.
Overseeing the Herculean task of directing four different casts of youngsters in three days was the perennially effervescent LaGuardia, a human bubble machine who, to his young cast, was worth all the treasure in Agrabah’s Cave of Wonders.
“Aladdin Jr.” continues with performances by four different casts of 6- to 10-year-olds at 7 p.m. Fri., July 13; 1 and 7 p.m. Sat., July 14; and 1 p.m. Sun., July 15 at Newbury Park High, 456 N. Reino Road. For tickets, call (805) 381-2747 or visit hillcrestarts.com.