Aladdin: Theater Review

Adam Jacobs Aladdin - P 2014
Cylla von Tiedemann
While it doesn't rival the imagination or innovation of "The Lion King," the show's ebullient comic spirit should make it a popular hit.

Disney's latest animated movie musical to get a Broadway makeover is the 1992 fairy tale set in a fictional Middle Eastern kingdom, featuring songs by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.

NEW YORK -- Its exotic Middle Eastern setting and multiethnic cast aside, Aladdin offers less "A Whole New World" -- to quote its signature song -- than a traditional Disney fairy-tale realm; it's perhaps the most old-school of the company's screen-to-stage adaptations since Beauty and the Beast. But that shouldn't deter audiences from making this splashy Arabian Nights wish-fulfillment fantasy into a family-friendly hit. Directed and choreographed by musical comedy specialist Casey Nicholaw with loads of retro showmanship, an unapologetic embrace of casbah kitsch and a heavy accent on shtick, this is sweet, silly fun. It's not the most sophisticated entertainment, but the target demographic won't mind at all.

The 1992 release followed The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast in Disney's renaissance of the animated feature musical, heralding the valiant final resurgence of hand-drawn toon artistry before computer animation took hold. The film was notable for its shift beyond the princess focus to a more boy-centric story, and for being among the first cases of major celebrity voice casting becoming central to the production's marketing, via Robin Williams' role as the motormouth Genie.

It was also the final collaboration between composer Alan Menken and lyricist Howard Ashman before the latter's death due to AIDS complications in 1991. The team completed eleven songs for Aladdin, only a handful of which made it into the movie; several of the others have found an afterlife here. Tim Rice stepped in to complete work on the film's score with Menken, while Chad Beguelin (The Wedding Singer, Elf), the book writer on this stage adaptation, contributes additional lyrics. Irrespective of who wrote what, the songs are tuneful, if not quite top-drawer.

Nicholaw won a 2011 Tony Award as co-director with Trey Parker of The Book of Mormon. But the most indicative precursor of his work here was his staging of "Show Off," the hilariously insincere disavowal of a Broadway star's natural spotlight-seeking tendencies, performed with brio by Sutton Foster in The Drowsy Chaperone. That same more-is-more, irrepressibly over-the-top shamelessness defines the twin showstoppers that bookend intermission in Aladdin.

The first is "Friend Like Me," in which the Genie (James Monroe Iglehart), freshly uncorked from his lamp, previews the infinite gifts available to his astonished new master, Aladdin (Adam Jacobs). Starting with Iglehart doing a Cab Calloway-esque scat, Nicholaw builds the song into a mammoth production number, with a chorus of whirling valets and showgirls, a "Dancing with the Scimitars" ballroom break, a step or two of hoedown, a game-show interlude, a mini-medley of Disney tunes from other musicals, an exuberant tap routine and a finale with canes and a kickline. While Williams' vocal performance in the movie was quite large, Iglehart's high-energy turn is perhaps even larger, whether he's dropping in winking pop-cultural anachronisms (he quotes Sweet Brown at one point) or firing off hoary one-liners like a Catskills comic. He's a delight.

The follow-up song, again led by the indefatigable Iglehart, is "Prince Ali," a royal procession that makes Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra entrance look like a casual stroll. Replete with Vegas-style fan dancers, peacocks and the now-regulation streamer explosion, this takes place after the Genie has transformed Aladdin from street scruff into a regal suitor worthy of Princess Jasmine (Courtney Reed), the feisty Sultan's daughter feeling cramped inside the palace walls.

Beguelin's book is larded with gags but sticks more or less to the movie. The main addition is a trio of vaudevillian comic sidekicks for Aladdin, (Brandon O'Neill, Jonathan Schwartz and Brian Gonzalez), replacing his kleptomaniac monkey onscreen. (Jasmine's tiger has also been nixed.) These guys were part of Ashman's concept for the film, and their jaunty songs are enjoyable, particularly "High Adventure," even if they sometimes outstay their welcome.

The opening number, "Arabian Nights," is a busy riot of marketplace scene-setting and souk-chic fashion, in which the Genie reminds us that, "Even our poor people look faaabulous!" That goes double for buff Aladdin, in his artfully patched Hammer-time pants. Beaming like a toothpaste commercial model, Jacobs packs plenty of charm into the role, and is an ideal incarnation of the handsome Disney cartoon hero -- now with lifelike nipples and body hair! He also brings tenderness to his warm rendition of "Proud of Your Boy," in which the orphaned urchin dreams of becoming more than a street thief.

But the romantic pulse of Aladdin is a little faint. Jasmine is a less captivating version of Belle and Ariel before her, spouting generic female-empowerment refrains but never acquiring much dimension as a character. Her magic carpet flight with Aladdin during "A Whole New World" is a technological marvel (no visible trace of cables or lift mechanisms), set against the star-strewn velvet of lighting designer Natasha Katz's night sky. But the scene lacks enchantment because the chemistry between Aladdin and Jasmine isn't quite there. While Reed sings sweetly, she's more like a curvy Kardashian than a Disney princess, and her trio of fly-girl attendants could sub for Destiny's Child. (I swear, I kept listening for the opening guitar lick from "Bootylicious," waiting for someone to ask, "Kelly, can you handle this?")

Beguelin looks for the true heart of the musical in the intertwined quests of Aladdin to be an honorable man and the Genie to be a free one. But while both actors are winning presences, their storylines bump along with the jokey buddy dynamic of a Bob Hope-Bing Crosby movie (think Road to Morocco), limiting the emotional pull.

In leaning so heavily on the campy humor (yes, there are "Walk Like an Egyptian" dance moves aplenty) the creative team has slightly shortchanged the show on earnest sentimentality, which for better or worse is an essential Disney ingredient. That makes Aladdin's appeal somewhat juvenile, though plenty of adults with a taste for broad comedy will eagerly get on board. The cartoonish aspect is enhanced by the mugging villains: Jafar (Jonathan Freeman, reprising the vizier role he voiced in the film), and his diminutive henchman, Iago, no longer a parrot but a sneering human sycophant who, in Don Darryl Rivera's amusing performance, seems spliced from the DNA of Danny DeVito and Matt Lucas.

Bob Crowley's pretty sets appear lifted from storybook illustrations and classic animation backgrounds, but the most lavish design element by far is Gregg Barnes' endless parade of costumes. Their rich textures and vibrant colors are frequently embellished with beads, brocades, tassels and trinkets, accessories that are available in more modest versions at the lobby merchandise stand. Ka-ching!

Venue: New Amsterdam Theatre, New York (runs indefinitely)

Cast: Adam Jacobs, James Monroe Iglehart, Courtney Reed, Jonathan Freeman, Brian Gonzales, Brandon O’Neill, Jonathan Schwartz, Clifton Davis, Don Darryl Rivera, Tia Altinay, Andrew Cao, Joshua Dela Cruz, Yurel Echezarreta, Daisy Hobbs, Donald Jones Jr., Adam Kaokept, Nikki Long, Stanley Martin, Brandt Martinez, Rhea Patterson, Bobby Pestka, Khori Michelle Petinaud, Ariel Reid, Trent Saunders, Jaz Sealey, Dennis Stowe, Marisha Wallace, Bud Weber

Director-choreographer: Casey Nicholaw

Book & additional lyrics: Chad Beguelin, based on the Disney film written by Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, directed and produced by Musker and Clements

Music: Alan Menken

Lyrics: Howard Ashman, Tim Rice

Set designer: Bob Crowley

Lighting designer: Natasha Katz

Costume designer: Gregg Barnes

Sound designer: Ken Travis

Illusion designer: Jim Steinmeyer

Orchestrations: Danny Troob

Music supervisor, incidental music & vocal arrangements: Michael Kosarin

Presented by Disney Theatrical Productions