by Matt Smith . . .
“Hidee hidee hidee hi
Hode hode hode ho
Hee dee hee dee hee dee hee
A hidee hidee hidee ho!”
There was an extra dash of Disney magic in the air on January 31st, when former Broadway Genie, Major Attaway – currently the longest-tenured actor to play the role – put a quarter in The Genie’s Jukebox at Midtown hotspot Feinstein’s/54 Below.
With a nod to the plethora of recent Disney backstories provided for villains that influence the characters as we know them today, Attaway devises, through song, his own story for the Genie – reimagining the shapeshifter as a cohort of the villains and putting his own jazz-tinged stamp on the Mouse House catalogue… resulting in a unique evening that is truly “Major” in every sense of the word.
Spotlighting both classic hits and lesser-known gems, he unabashedly turns the songbook on its head, redefining the beloved spirit as we know him. With passes at such dastardly devils as Cruella, Ursula and (ahem) Jafar, he shines a new (lamp) light on the character, and in doing so, in a way, redefines himself.
And the brilliance of the evening lies in how he changes the narrative. To sing “When We’re Human,” from The Princess and the Frog, he ponders what the Genie would dream of, if he could break himself free from the lamp for a day. For Moana’s “You’re Welcome,” he postulates what would happen if the Genie crossed paths with another shapeshifting Disney demigod. He even gender-bends with the aforementioned “Poor Unfortunate Souls,” offering a spine-tingling performance sure to make all sea creatures squirm.
And, as one might expect from the Genie, his trippy trip through the catalogue ends rightfully right back where it all began, with a top-notch rendition of that (almost obligatory) signature song, the evening bookended by jazz-age hits with a Genie flair, brilliantly blending the lyrics of Ray Charles and Cab Calloway (complete with full-blown call-and-response) and the ever-familiar underscore of “Friend Like Me.”
Of course, while Attaway is in full form throughout, this being a jazz show, special attention must be paid to the impeccably first-rate jazz quartet – led by music director and trumpeter August “Augie” Haas – whose sassy, brassy sound imbues hints of the Harlem Renaissance. The evening is as much of a showcase for each of them as it is for Attaway; here, they serve as more than just your average accompanists, with solos built into the songs for each instrumentalist to show off his swing, be it the rhythmic strum of Jeff Koch’s bass, the train-like chug of Ray Marchica’s percussion, the signature wail of Haas’ aforementioned trumpet, or the jazzy trill of the keys, courtesy of pianist Eugene Gwozdz.
To boot, Attaway makes ample use of his special guest, North American tour Genie Korie Lee Blossey, to the point where it’s almost a double act (according to later-distributed press notes, Blossey co-wrote the show). Blossey’s voice is the perfect complement to Attaway’s – especially on a blissfully heartbreaking, but equally gorgeous take on Tarzan’s “You’ll Be in My Heart”. And while their back-and-forth banter does veer off-course at times, unnecessarily overpowering the resonant vocal selections, it may be forgiven, considering their love and appreciation for each other is palpable, and it’s abundantly clear they’re just pallin’ around.
While he devised the evening mainly to celebrate the legacy of the iconic role, Attaway also admits to a desire to create visibility for himself. Throwing his hat into the ring should producers decide to bring certain adaptations to Broadway (wink wink), he confides, “I needed to see me see myself.” A self-proclaimed victim of “mistaken identi-Genie,” the songs he chooses are, therefore, specific songs for a reason, the lyrics touching on prescient topics or their original singers representing certain viewpoints. In this way, owning the narrative – both here and, as he mentions, onstage as the Genie throughout his run in Aladdin (“I occupied a space and was thanked for it. That’s not too shabby,” he laughs) – and knowing he holds that power allows him to drive his point home even further: “Black men are indeed magic… and I’m living proof.”
In short, though the concert has its (minor) missteps, the headliner – and the creativity behind how the show is presented – is supremely worthwhile. He’s true to himself, candid and honest, his deliciously buttery baritone, almost operatic at times, just screaming ‘90s Disney villain (and boy, does he nail that laugh!) His invaluable anecdotes from geeking out with the OG Jonathan Freeman, “sweating glitter” onstage in Aladdin, and finding his place in the Disney and theatrical canon, coupled with his unparalleled enthusiasm, make this an evening not to be forgotten. He’s just happy to be there, emanating charm, joy and jazzy jazz sophistication. And he’s such a velvet teddy bear that, by evening’s end, you’ll wish, naturally, that you had a “friend like him,” too.
And sure, he touches on political correctness and a desire to have more notable Disney roles available to “a large man of color like myself,” but you come to realize that though he’s indeed making a statement, his aim in creating the evening is, in fact, less about making a statement and more about just jammin’ out and celebrating life… having fun just because he can. And if that’s what you dig, consider your wish granted.
The Genie’s Jukebox, featuring Major Attaway, played Feinstein’s/54 Below (254 W. 54th Street) on January 31st. For more information, please visit www.54below.com.