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Granting Disney's wish

Three creative forces team up on 'Aladdin' with the goal of redefining theme park shows.

January 05, 2003|Mike Boehm | Times Staff Writer

Anne Hamburger knows how to play the Pied Piper.

Once she stood in a housing project on Manhattan's West Side, shouting at the top of her lungs that she needed workers and was willing to pay. Soon she was marching a troop of about 30 youngsters to an abandoned pier on the Hudson River.

There, for minimum wage, they built a fence she needed as part of her marginally funded but artistically ambitious vision of staging avant-garde theater in some of New York's most decayed and derelict places.

Now, a decade later and a continent away, she is doing it again. Only this time she is marching through the back lot of the Happiest Place on Earth, and the duckling trail of about 20 people behind her consists mainly of the folks who run Disneyland. The parade begins at Team Disney, the management center whose high-vaulting lobby, painted in swirls of red and black, makes you feel as if you're standing at the bottom of a strawberry-chocolate parfait. It ends nearby, in a hangar-like rehearsal hall the size of a high school gym.

Without doffing her long, black, woolly frock coat, Hamburger picks up a microphone and plays the emcee for Disneyland President Cynthia Harriss and her staff of marketers, publicists and merchandisers, the functionaries charged with selling what Hamburger has wrought. It's early November, and "Disney's Aladdin -- A Musical Spectacular" is still more than two months from its Jan. 17 opening after a month of previews. This rehearsal run-through will let the Disney team see for the first time what new manner of beast -- Broadway goes to the theme park -- it has on its hands.

"We're glad to let you in on the process of making this happen," Hamburger says.

The home-team audience proceeds to laugh, to cheer, to be utterly slain -- even though scenery, props and costumes are minimal and the big special effects are still being put together at Disney's California Adventure, where the show will play three or four times daily in the 2,000-seat Hyperion Theater.

Yes, it's a big world after all for Hamburger, a personable, confident woman whose quirks include pronouncing her first name "Annie" while continuing to spell it "Anne." At 49, this erstwhile Cinderella of the fringes rules a corporate palace as the executive vice president of creative entertainment for Disney's worldwide theme park operations. "Aladdin," a 40-minute stage musical adapted from the popular cartoon feature, is her first major production.

Harriss won't discuss the budget, other than to say the investment is "significant" and "long-term," with hopes that "Aladdin" can become one of the park's signature attractions, pulling in crowds for many years. The show calls for 18 scene changes and 250 costumes for a cast of 50 covering the show's 29 roles. Among the sights: a life-size model elephant lumbering through the audience like a visitor from "The Lion King," and a flying carpet that soars not only back and forth but from side to side while seeming to bank into its turns. There also is a little lamp from which billows a very large genie.

With Disney granting her wish for a high-profile creative team, Hamburger hired a leading grand opera director, Francesca Zambello, to oversee "Aladdin" between engagements at the Bastille Opera in Paris and New York's Metropolitan Opera. Hamburger and Zambello -- a recent recipient of one of France's highest cultural awards, the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres -- then picked Lynne Taylor-Corbett as choreographer. Taylor-Corbett's credits include creating the theatrical hit "Swing," choreographing the film "Footloose" and devising dances for the American Ballet Theatre and Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

For Hamburger's corporate bosses at Disney, the ultimate point of her mission is to help turn a pumpkin into a cash cow. Disney's theme parks have fared poorly amid the tourism-dampening international economic woes and post-Sept. 11 global anxiety; California Adventure, in particular, has failed to draw as expected. When it opened two years ago, it was quickly tagged as a place too bent on seeming hip and too little concerned with Disney's bread-and-butter audience of families. Along with other new attractions, "Aladdin," which is included in the regular park admission, is being counted on to help change that perception.

Hamburger and her team are here because Disney wants to replicate in the theme parks a formula that has paid dividends for another division: Disney Theatricals, which produces the company's Broadway shows. Take a beloved Disney property ("The Lion King"), turn it over to an accomplished avant-garde stage artist with a distinctive visual flair (director Julie Taymor), and reap critical kudos and huge profits.

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