A Whole New World

“We’re going to take it from the top of the genie scene!” Laura Attanasio called from the back of Worthington Hooker Middle School’s auditorium.

On cue, the room began to transform: house lights went completely down, a spot flashed on, and soft feet were heard padding quickly across the modest stage. Suddenly, viewers were not in an East Rock school at all, but the far-away land of Agrabah, where Aladdin and his newfound friend the genie were brainstorming their escape from an evil Sultan’s cave.

Lucy Gellman PhotoSpoiler alert: Slipping away from a malevolent leader is, in fact, exponentially easier with a magic lamp and three wishes.

Welcome to the fantastical dreamscape of Aladdin Jr., a one-act theatrical adaptation of the Disney film written for middle schools. Tuesday and Wednesday evenings, audiences will be able to get to Agrabah a little more easily: Just head up Whitney Avenue to Worthington Hooker Middle School, where two strong casts of eighth-graders are eager to perform disappearing acts, fall in love overnight, and discover that ultimately, happy endings happen only when everyone is free to make their own decisions.

Generations-old and contemporary arguments about Aladdin aside, the script – filled with heroes and villains, upbeat dance numbers, and young love in all its awkward glory – is perfect for the rambunctious group, on the edge of graduation and not quite sure of what will come next for them.

Like the movie, the musical works best as a unit, punctuated with joyous outbursts of song (not to mention confetti). There are stellar standout moments: When Aladdin and Jasmine pull each other in for an embrace, a gentle fist squeezes ever so sweetly in your chest. When the genie gains her freedom, there is an urge to whoop and holler. And when the cast exclaims, to its surprise as much as to its delight, “we’re free!,” humanists who have been rooting for a reconciliation between Jasmine and her traditional father can finally breathe easily. 

And don’t even start on that endless diamond sky, performed with a doe-eyed innocence and thrilling distance from adulthood that will have audiences wondering if sometimes a magic carpet ride is just a magic carpet ride.

Their secret, the students say, is a friendship forged through acting, and a commitment to not only the stage, but the fun that’s had on it.

“It was a great learning experience. ... It was really fun to be around everybody, and I got to know people more. I haven’t really ever been big in a play, and I never really thought I would like acting so much, but I do!” said Mary Gilbert, who plays one of the sultans.

“I really like musicals, but before this, I didn’t have any interest in doing it. I wanted to be stage crew. But after we auditioned and I got cast and started working on it..with all the energy that goes into it, we have a lot of fun together,” added Laura Rosado, one of the musical’s narrators.

Their classmates agreed. “I love Aladdin. So when I found out we were doing it, I was ecstatic. It’s been really fun putting it on…getting to work with all your friends and learning…it’s a unique experience,” said Sara Thakur, who suggested that the script has helped her slow down and concentrate on diction on and off the stage. “It’s pretty amazing. It’s my first real musical, and I love being here every day,” added Luna McCulloch, who plays Jasmine and aspires to be a director. 

Teamwork is also the operative word for Attanasio and Ann Page, the musical’s director and voice director respectively. “We’re a really great team,” Attanasio said. “We’ve been great colleagues ever since we met, because she’s extremely strong in areas I’m extremely weak in. So what we do is we bounce off each other. It’s really nice.” With some help from choreographer Joyana Muse and a handful of volunteer parents, they have been quite the dream team: together they designed costumes and set, and worked tirelessly through rehearsals. “We’re exhausted, [but] it’s been great.”

Calling this year’s cast the “most invested group yet,” Page suggested that the program has a bright future.

The musical is the culmination of a year-long curricular investment in theater: the two teachers begin the process in September, when all WHMS students learn the play’s music. Acting, set design and technical theater are added in layers, with the pedagogical intention of students knowing the play inside and out before formal auditions, which are held in late March or early April. It seems to be working: “The teachers are so awesome,” said Drew Johnson, who plays sassy sidekick Iago. 

Spring has finally arrived to New Haven, and perhaps the sun will beckon a little bit harder in the next few days. But it cannot compete, for the moment, with the whole new world tucked away at the corner of Huntington and Whitney. Get your tickets fast: there won’t be seats – or flying carpets – waiting for that much longer.

Come see Disney’s Aladdin, Jr. at 7pm Tuesday, May 13 and Wednesday, May 14 in the Worthington Hooker Middle School Auditorium. For more information, check out their website or call 203-497-7200

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