In Aladdin, the new Disney musical on Broadway, the genie grants theatergoers the first of their wishes – to be entertained. The genie is James Monroe Iglehart, and he is the one who provides the bulk of the entertainment, morphing from showbiz master of ceremonies to carnival barker to infomercial huckster to game show host to Cab Calloway-like zoot-suiter to disco dj to hip-hopper in a Hawaiian shirt, to yes, a sparkling-suited magical genie who emerges amid smoke from a little lamp. Every number over which he presides – nearly every moment he is on stage – answers the question that fans of the 1992 film Aladdin might have wondered about: How would Disney be able to translate to the stage the protean cartoon character of genie voiced by Robin Williams at his peak? The answer is James Monroe Iglehart, and the answer satisfies.
An hour elapses, however, between Iglehart’s opening number and his next appearance in this two-hour show. If there is much that dazzles in his absence – though perhaps not quite as brightly – not all happening on the stage of the New Amsterdam Theater is everything that every theatergoer might wish for.
I do not mean to imply that Iglehart carries the whole show singlehandedly. He has exquisite help from director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw who has created the kind of old-fashioned razzmatazz choreography (with allusions to Broadway history, from “West Side Story” to “Hello, Dolly” to “Beauty and the Beast”) that’s been wowing them at “The Book of Mormon.” This shouldn’t be surprising; Nicholaw also directed and choreographed that show, although here he’s replaced the snark and foul-mouthed irreverence with a hyperkinetic playfulness. “Aladdin” doesn’t scrimp with the colorful sets, aggressively sparkling costumes (337 “handcrafted” costumes in all, we’re told in the program), glistening chests, alluring midriffs, and — most spectacularly — every trick in the Broadway special effects playbook – stage smoke, a confetti cannon, dreamy night skies, loud thunderous bangs, deep menacing voices, even fireworks – as well as much stagecraft that feels unique. The ensemble members swallow swords….while dancing. Aladdin appears amid the smoke that has drifted up from the stage. Sure, it must have been a video projection, but it made me a believer – of Jim Steinmayer, in charge of the “illusion design.” (There are in all, we’re told, 84 illusions and effects.) This is a show that is massively fun to look at.
Click on any photograph to enlarge.
“Aladdin” the musical restores the songs that were cut from “Aladdin” the animated film, and adds a new one. For all the excitement this might generate among “Aladdin” or Alan Menken fans, the score is not Menken’s best. Still, we’re talking about the composer of “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Beauty and the Beast,” “Newsies” (and ok, “Sister Act” and “Leap of Faith.”) Even middling Menken can be rousing and mellifluous, and one song in “Aladdin” is both: “A Whole New World” won an Oscar and reached number one on the Billboard charts, and it remains a charmer. Knowing what they have in that song, the creative team stage that number with Aladdin and Princess Jasmine on a flying carpet persuasively floating in mid-air (no wires!), amid a night sky festooned with rabidly shimmering stars.
Street Rat Hearts Princess
The story itself is not outright painful. It is only slightly altered from the animated film on which it is based. Aladdin (Adam Jacobs) is a young thief, “a street rat.” (His companion in the movie was Abu, a monkey; now he has three human friends.) After a random encounter on the street with the Princess Jasmine (Courtney Reed), who’s in disguise, Aladdin falls in love with her. There are at least two problems with this. 1. Jasmine has rejected every suitor that her father the Sultan has encouraged to come calling. 2. The law of the kingdom decrees that a princess can only marry a prince, and Aladdin is far from that.
Meanwhile, the Sultan’s royal advisor, the evil Jafar (Jonathan Freeman, reprising the role he voiced in the animated film), has designs both on Jasmine and on the crown. But first he wants to get hold of the magic lamp. The lamp is in the Cave of Wonders and the cave will only allow a “diamond in the rough” to enter. As Jafar sees in the smoke that I mentioned earlier, that diamond is Aladdin.
This leads us to the genie and the three wishes – at which point the show comes alive…as long as the genie is on stage.
Dumb Jokes and Bland Beauty
In the very beginning of “Aladdin,” right before the awe-inspiring, all hands-on-deck opening number “Arabian Nights,” the genie introduces us to “the fabled city of Agrabah,” the fictional Arabian city that is the setting for the story, by digging in his pocket to show us what Agrabah is famous for. He takes out a miniature Statue of Liberty such as is for sale in the tourist shops just down the block from the New Amsterdam Theater. “Oops, sorry. Did a little pre-show shopping,” he says and takes out the magic lamp.
It’s a cute joke, calculated to appeal to the tourists who are likely to make up much of the audience for “Aladdin.” But it’s also a clue to what’s in store. Beneath all that shimmer and talent is a unmistakeable Disney product. Masquerading as an attempt to be more anarchic than the average Disney show, Chad Beguelin’s book exceeds the acceptable quota of dumb jokes. The dialogue seems to reflect Disney’s commitment to making its characters, whatever their station in life or period in history, sound like modern-day pre-teen girls who watch too much television. (“You and your stupid heart of gold,” one of Al’s pals says to him when he gives a stolen piece of bread to a beggar woman.)
The lyrics, by Tim Rice and the late Howard Ashman, with some additional lyrics by Beguelin, fare better. They include some clever rhymes (Agrabah is “a land of high intrigue with tricky logistics by prophets and mystics”) — and some uncomfortable ones (“I come from a land …where the caravan camels roam…It’s barbaric, but hey it’s home“)
The cast is made up of more than three dozen complete professionals, with many stand-outs, such as Don Darryl Rivera as Jafar’s bumblingly evil sidekick Iago, who in the movie is a parrot, but here is apparently just a short toady. Rivera, making his Broadway debut, performs with an ideal comic voice and great timing; one wishes the lines he’s given to deliver deserved him. (Sample: “Like my mother used to say, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, kill everyone.’)
The two leads, Adam Jacobs and Courtney Reed, have fine voices and even finer features. They are both gifted Broadway veterans – he played Marius in Les Miz and Simba in The Lion King; she has been in both In The Heights and Mamma Mia. It’s not their fault that their ideal bodies and perfectly symmetrical features add to the impression that a Disney animator has drawn them in 3D. It’s unfortunate that Jacobs has to sing the lyric “…I can’t make myself taller or smarter or handsome…” since he is impossibly handsome (and there are lines in the show that make it clear that Aladdin is supposed to be; women drool over him.) It’s also not really their fault that their characters are so bland, despite efforts to give them some personalities. Jasmine, for example, is something of a feminist (“Why do I even have to marry at all?” she demands of her father “What’s wrong with a woman running the kingdom?”)
But whatever the billing, let’s face it, the star of “Aladdin” is James Monroe Iglehart. When he appeared in “Memphis” five years ago, he had a relatively small part as an oversized janitor who becomes a sexy singing sensation (nods to Chubby Checkers.) Shaking and rocking it to the roof in a song called “Big Love,” he delivered a showstopper. It is too much to say he is the show in “Aladdin,” but he certainly gives – and deserves – some big love.
At the New Amsterdam Theater
Music by Alan Menken; lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice; book and additional lyrics by 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);
Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw; music supervision, incidental music and vocal arrangements by Michael Kosarin; orchestrations by Danny Troob; sets by Bob Crowley; costumes by Gregg Barnes; lighting by Natasha Katz; sound by Ken Travis; hair design by Josh Marquette; makeup design by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira; illusion design by Jim Steinmeyer; dance music arrangements by Glen Kelly; music coordinator, Howard Joines; fight direction by J. Allen Suddeth
Cast: Adam Jacobs (Aladdin), James Monroe Iglehart (Genie), Courtney Reed (Jasmine), Brian Gonzales (Babkak), Brandon O’Neill (Kassim/Spooky Voice/Voice of the Cave), Jonathan Schwartz (Omar), Clifton Davis (Sultan), Don Darryl Rivera (Iago) and Jonathan Freeman (Jafar).
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes.
Tickets: $49.50 – $115.50