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Review: With a Surprise Appearance by Jodi Benson, DISNEY PRINCESS - THE CONCERT Brings Big Talent to Dr. Phillips Center

Review: With a Surprise Appearance by Jodi Benson, DISNEY PRINCESS - THE CONCERT Brings Big Talent to Dr. Phillips Center

The national tour brings big-stadium energy to intimate venues with mixed results but a heartfelt framework — and undeniable stars.

The Disney Princesses were only five songs into their set when the iconic Jodi Benson made a surprise appearance on stage. The original voice behind Ariel in 1989's The Little Mermaid, Benson may be best known on screen as a princess, but to a crowd of theatre aficionados and adoring Disney fans, she's a queen.

DISNEY PRINCESS - THE CONCERT is a national tour uniting four of the women who've brought an iconic princess to life on the Broadway stage. The roster changes from time to time, but Benson has never been part of it, which made her unexpected performance of "Part of Your World" the absolute highlight of the evening, especially when the royals in residence joined her for five-party harmony.

The headliners at Dr. Phillips Center's Steinmetz Hall included Christy Altomare (Broadway's original Anastasia), Isabelle McCalla (Jasmine in Aladdin on Broadway and in the national tour), Syndee Winters (Nala in The Lion King on Broadway), and Anneliese Van Der Pol (the final Belle in Broadway's Beauty and the Beast but even better known as sidekick Chelsea on TV's "That's So Raven"). They kicked things off with a Six-like group number in Brandy's "Starting Now" before trading songs (mostly solos) across a two-hour set that skewed toward the post-Gen X end of the songbook.

There was an exception, though: van der Pol's mashup of "Someday My Prince Will Come," "So This Is Love," "Once Upon a Dream" and "A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes." With positively Casalotti-ish falsetto and perfect princess posture, van der Pol fit those Walt-era numbers like a shiny glass slipper. But at the same time, she's got range. When I previously saw this tour, Disney Legend Susan Egan was part of the lineup, and van der Pol was assigned a different set of songs. But tonight, with Egan out with an injury, van der Pol took on the sassier and more tonally specific songs that made Egan famous - songs like "I Won't Say I'm in Love" from Hercules and "Belle" from Beauty and the Beast (Egan originated that role on stage) - as well as Donna Murphy's campy-cruel "Mother Knows Best" from Tangled, all with diva-licious delivery.

However, it was Syndee Winters who had to span the most daunting spectrum of style: poppy and love-drunk (Frozen), jazzy and determined (The Princess and the Frog), sprightly and Irish (Brave), and mournfully mysterious (The Lion King). Her "Shadowland" brought the audience right into the dramatic heart of that song, even without any of The Lion King's context to help her get us there.

Christy Altomare revealed what Rapunzel's "When Will My Life Begin" (originally by Mandy Moore) might have sounded like had a pop star not sung it, meditating theatrically on the lyrics. Later, she returned to Tangled with a mashup of "Flower Encantation" and "I See the Light." But her biggest applause came from a character who only technically qualifies as on-theme: Anastasia, whose story made a smash debut on Broadway with Christy in the lead role but who only recently came into the Disney fold through Mickey's acquisition of 20th Century Fox.

Isabelle McCalla got to mine some of the more interesting corners of the canon, such as her blending of "Speechless" and "These Palace Walls" (two songs written for Aladdin's Jasmine but neither from the movie) and, later, a strong-voiced delivery of Lin-Manuel Miranda's "How Far I'll Go." But it's in her finale number, Pocahontas's "Colors of the Wind," that McCalla really dazzles.

Of course, for nearly every Disney Princess, there is also a Disney Prince... but in DISNEY PRINCESS - THE CONCERT, that ratio is more like four to one. Adam J. Levy is on hand for the requisite male vocal in any given duet. He sounds like a prince and looks like one too, as the show's one other male lead - creator Benjamin Rauhala - points out repeatedly. "It's the bone structure," Rauhala says approvingly... and almost thirstily.

And that is perhaps the most surprising and intriguing thing about DISNEY PRINCESS - THE CONCERT. It's unabashedly gay. In Orlando on election night, the show's uncompromising fabulousness (Rauhala describes himself as a "Fairy Godfairy" and dedicates the show to the childhood he spent playing with princess dolls and feeling misunderstood) and the audience's roaring, adoring reaction felt meaningful, if not downright political in the wake of Florida's "Don't Say Gay" controversy. (And here I must note that DISNEY PRINCESS - THE CONCERT does not at any point use the word "gay," even if it's clearly enough implied.)

Rauhala is effortlessly likeable and funny, like when he off-handedly told Jodi Benson that he considers himself a semi-professional Flounder. That's not surprising, as this concert's origins are in a decidedly more risqué show called Broadway Princess Party, which Rauhala originated at 54 Below in NYC. The show became a viral sensation on YouTube before Disney bought the rights, gave it a G-rated polish, and made it Mouse House official.

Its conversion to a big-budget concert comes at a cost. From the giant and distracting jumbotron constantly playing animated movie clips behind each performer to a setlist that allows for very few deep cuts and banter that sometimes errs on the side of trite, it's lacking the renegade intimacy that seems to have defined the Broadway Princess Party in its earliest days. (At a low point, Winters has the crowd do the wave mid-show.) It's a shame the tour isn't allowed to forego stadium showmanship and instead proceed as a proper cabaret or musical revue, but then again, by its very title it's begging to play to a broader crowd.

If you want to be part of that crowd, current tour dates and tickets are available at the show's official website. (Note: The audience in Orlando was millennial-heavy but spanned from child to senior and everything in between - some in symphony attire, others in character costume. No one seemed out of place.) Information on other upcoming performances at Dr. Phillips Center can be found at the theatre's online box office.


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