Denver Center has hot tickets for spring with ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Native Gardens’ |

Denver Center has hot tickets for spring with ‘Aladdin’ and ‘Native Gardens’

Alex Miller
Special to the Daily
The elaborate set for the Genie’s cave in "Aladdin" is the backdrop for the show’s most impressive musical number.
Photos Special to the Daily

IF you go ...

What: “Aladdin” and “Native Gardens.”

Where: The Denver Center, about an hour and a half from Vail.

Tickets: Visit

Just as is in the High Country, it’s a bit of a shoulder season for most Colorado theaters in between their winter and summer shows. But the Denver Center for the Performing Arts is hopping this April, with a big (OK, huge) Broadway touring production of Disney’s “Aladdin” at the Buell Theater.

Just across the plaza in the Space Theater, the Denver Center Theater Company has a wonderful production of the comedy “Native Gardens.”

With the lifts shut down for the season, it’s as good a time as any to head down the hill and catch some theater.

A must-see ‘Aladdin’

“Alladin”: Showing through April 28 in the Buell

I can’t often make these comparisons, but I saw “Aladdin” on Broadway in 2015, and I can say without reservation that this touring production is every bit as good — and possibly better. It’s as if the producers opened their wallets and said “let’s throw everything we’ve got at this” because the show is tremendous in every sense of the word. If you’ve ever wanted to see a big Broadway show minus the horrors of LaGuardia, this one is well worth the price.

Based on the 1992 Disney film, this live production is faithful to the story of the street rat Aladdin (Clinton Greenspan) and how he weasels his way into the heart and palace of the beautiful princess Jasmine (Isabelle McCalla). As the Genie, Michael James Scott faithfully channels the frenetic energy, non-stop jokes and flamboyance of the character Robin Williams immortalized in the film. Scott flings himself into the role, emerging from the lamp like he was shot out of a cannon and launching into the “Friend Like Me” musical number that’s the absolute highlight of the show.

When Aladdin enters the treasure cave at the behest of the evil Jafar (a show-stealing Jonathan Weir), the audience is treated to one of the most elaborate sets ever built at the Buell. It’s a multi-layered room wrought entirely in reflective gold, which also afforded the lighting director carte blanche to bounce a dizzying array of optical effects from every corner. Since live theater doesn’t allow the kind of shape-shifting the Genie did in the film, director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw said he thought of the number as a constantly changing TV channel.

That meant a lot of rapid costume changes, musical left turns and, above all, a wild mix of dance styles. As Nicholaw is quoted in the program:

“Let’s do some ballroom! The cheesiest sort of recognizable ballroom. And let’s put in tap! Turkish! Greek! Bollywood! Let’s put in a medley of other songs and use that almost as a nightclub act for the Genie!”

With dancers popping out of places you’d think were just set pieces, the Genie’s ever-changing costumes and a number that keeps outdoing itself, “Friend Like Me” alone is worth the price of admission. But “Aladdin” continues to deliver, with many more big numbers to come and some strong performances by Greenspan and McCalla as the star-crossed couple and a particular nice turn by Weir as the evil Jafar and his oleaginous henchman Iago (Jay Paranada).

“Aladdin” is suitable for all ages over 6, and while it’s a great show for kids, don’t feel you need to have them along to enjoy this show as an adult. It’s a ton of fun.

A battle royale over a fence

“Native Gardens”: Showing through May 6 in the Space Theater

Wander into the Denver Center’s recently remodeled space right now and the first thing you notice is that there’s a very large tree looming over the stage. There are flowers, grass, dirt, acorns, sticks, weeds and all of the other things you’d find in a backyard lining every inch of the stage. And like a skunk at a garden party, there’s an ugly chain-link fence separating two backyards — one messy and uncared-for, the other impeccably groomed and full of flowers.

This is the setting for “Native Gardens,” a play by Karen Zacarias that, while it unravels in one act over 90 minutes, contains two distinct realities. The first is depicted when a young, professional “Latinx” couple — Tania and husband Pablo Del Valle — move into the neglected home in a Washington, D.C., suburb and meet their older, whiter and stodgier neighbors, Frank and Ginny Butley. It seems likely that the shabby condition of their yard and the decrepit fence will soon become the flashpoint, but Zacarias craftily makes this an initial area of agreement.

It seems the Butleys (played with delightful bluster and privilege by Jordan Baker and John Ahlin) have always hated the fence, and they’re thrilled to hear the Del Valles want to replace it with a nice wooden fence in time for Pablo to host a barbecue for his law firm in a few days’ time. But in assessing where the fence should go, the Del Valles discover a terrible truth: The old fence is in the wrong place, and Frank’s beautiful flower garden is actually on their land.

What follows next is a quick descent into a literal turf war, as the two couples confront a seemingly impossible question: How can they resolve the situation and still remain friends?

Zacarias, who was born in Mexico, takes this easily recognizable tale of border dispute and infuses it with a delightful blend of timely tension, adding plenty of references to the border wall, racial relations, xenophobia and lazy stereotypes the otherwise reasonable couples fall back on when things go south.

Pablo (Ryan Garbayo) moves rapidly from friendly neighbor to hotheaded lawyer who instantly sees the injustice in the Butleys’ unwitting usurpation of their land, while Tania (Mariana Fernandez) tries to play the peacekeeper as long as she can. We find out Pablo is Chilean and relatively new to the U.S., while Tania is from New Mexico and as American as Frank and Ginny. In their first meeting, the two couples touch on these differences in amusing and only slightly combative fashion, but as the fence war heats up, those differences rise to the surface in ways as ugly as the fence itself.

“Native Gardens” starts out simple and moves toward a rollicking climax while poking at a variety of sore spots in American society (up to and including the very definition of “American”).

This clever script is beautifully performed by the actors portraying the two couples, along with four ensemble players. As neighborly comity devolves into all-out war, the Butleys and Del Valles lose a bit of their humanity along the way, finding they must destroy what’s come before prior to building a new relationship from the rubble.

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