A whole new world it is not, but Disney’s Aladdin on Broadway is mostly entertaining, and a good choice for families.
The Broadway telling of Aladdin’s story, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon) hews closely to the animated movie on which it’s based, with some detours here there, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Genie (James Monroe Iglehart) opens the show by welcoming us to the fictional Middle East city of Agrabah, and soon we meet our title guy, the recently orphaned Aladdin (Adam Jacobs).
And this brings us to one of the most significant changes: Aladdin was on his own in the movie, but on stage, book writer Chad Beguelin (who also contributed additional lyrics to the score) takes pains to play up the fact that Aladdin recently lost his mother, and that parts of journey are rooted in a desire to live a life his mother would have been proud of. We get a couple of character development songs to that end, and while they slow down the show a little bit, the interpolations help to make Aladdin a three-dimensional character.
But the story is mostly the same: Aladdin is identified as the diamond in the rough and is asked by the nefarious Jafar (Jonathan Freeman, who voiced the character in all the Aladdin movies) to fetch a genie’s lamp from the Cave of Wonders. Aladdin finds the lamp but gets trapped in the cave before he can turn it over to Jafar, so the Genie becomes Aladdin’s. The new friends soon burst out of the cave.
Cut to Princess Jasmine (Courtney Reed), who is busy fending off suitors. Her father, the sultan, and the law say she must marry a prince, but Jasmine, a burgeoning feminist (seriously), wants to marry for love. After a chance meeting in the market, Aladdin falls for Jasmine and, with Genie’s help, tries to win her over.
Throughout, all the songs you love from the movie make their way to the stage. (All music is by Alan Menken; many lyrics are by the late Howard Ashman, with additional lyrics by Tim Rice and the aforementioned Beguelin.) There’s the opener, “Arabian Nights,” the lavish “Prince Ali” and “A Whole New World” (complete with a magic flying carpet), plus some songs that were cut from the movie and some brand new tunes, but the piece de resistance is the show-stopping “Friend Like Me.”
(Fun fact: “Friend Like Me” is the song I sang for my first audition for theatre camp!)
It’s in this fantastical number that we see that James Monroe Iglehart (Memphis) is a true showman. Not only is he funny and charming, not only can he sing a song like nobody’s business, but the big guy can dance around the stage like he was Jerome Robbins’s protégé. Iglehart brings a pizzazz to Genie that will make you think, “Robin who?”
During this celebratory, splashy song-and-dance delight, in which Genie shows off for his new master, enumerating all the things he can do and what makes him so special and valuable, I was reminded of a thought I had while watching another splashy musical earlier this season, Big Fish. Much like when Edward Bloom was telling a story in Big Fish, when Genie is around, we’re in a bit of a fantasy world, so nothing is too big or too flashy or too opulent. In fact, the bigger the better. (And lucky for Aladdin, Disney’s footing the bill so nothing’s out of reach.) And thus, we are treated to what we rarely get on stage these days: an unabashed song and dance number, one that pulls out all the stops and enlists a large chorus. (There are also large orchestrations (again, thanks, Disney’s checkbook), written by Danny Troob.)
As the penultimate number in act one, “Friend Like Me” goes for broke and stops the show. But kind of like the title number in Anything Goes, which also comes just before the act break, the show never quite recovers and everything that comes after (like “Blow Gabriel Blow” in Anything Goes and the flying carpet in “A Whole New World”) pales in comparison. It’s not that act two is bad or that I was disengaged, but you can’t beat the magic of a genie.
Even so, Aladdin is a fine addition to the Broadway landscape. While it’s not exactly my taste, it’s well done. Bob Crowley’s scenic design nicely evokes the beautifully drawn Agrabah; Gregg Barnes’s costumes dazzle; and the hard working cast, led by, in addition to Iglehart, a charismatic Adam Jacobs as Aladdin and a spirited Courtney Reed as Jasmine, is undeniably talented (and they don’t all look like the perfectly sculpted or leggy blonde ensemble members you typically see on stage). The New Amsterdam Theatre was teeming with kids, and I think any good-quality show that gets young people into a theatre is a diamond in the rough.