Update: Aladdin is still in previews at The 5th Avenue Theatre and does not open until July 21st (but then only runs until July 31st). Every night things are being changed, added and deleted. @KeenanBlogger wrote this yesterday (July 13th, 2011) on Twitter: Learned a new song yesterday, in the show tonight! Gotta love previews! (He’s referring to a new reprise of “High Adventure”.)
Written by our newest theatre critic: Dan Mason
For a company that has made billions by developing the most creative and innovative live entertainment experiences in the world, the folks at Disney have had a hit and miss track record on the Broadway stage. After the blockbuster successes of Beauty & The Beast, which enjoyed a 13 year run in New York, and The Lion King, which reinvented a beloved tale as the most spectacular arts & crafts project in modern theater, Disney has largely misfired in subsequent efforts. In the case of Tarzan and The Little Mermaid, critics say that the storytelling was lost at the expense of the spectacle. While Mary Poppins has enjoyed a financially successful run over the last 5 years , most people I know (including a 6 year old at home), were put off by the show’s inconsistent tone that wavers between a happy retelling of the Julie Andrews film and the somewhat darker tone of the novel it was based on (she fell asleep in the second act of the touring production).
In what might be an effort to lower the expectations of their latest project, the creative team behind Aladdin The Musical are quick to point out that the world premiere production at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theater is less of a Broadway tryout, than it is a look-see to test the waters on the script for this new musical, written by Chad Beguelin (Elf, The Wedding Singer), and featuring never before heard songs from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman.
The book neither feels like a faithful adaptation of the 1992 movie, nor the 45 minute stage version that plays at the California Adventures theme park. Instead, this Aladdin is more in line with the original vision for the screenplay, including many new songs that were cut from the movie. Additionally, all of the non-human characters have been eliminated from the musical, a change that is only noticeable in the case of Aladdin’s monkey, Abu, who’s antics often put the animated hero in unfortunate situations. In Abu’s place are three sidekick musicians, who also serve as the show’s narrators. This ends up being one of the major downfalls of the first act, as the characters of Omar, Babkak, and Hassim spend entirely too much time spitting out cheesy “theatre insider” jokes, making fun of “prop camels” and explaining to the audience why the “split stage” is an important storytelling device. While Brandon O’ Neill, Brian Gonzales, and Andrew Keenan-Bolger are talented comic actors who sound pitch perfect on their harmonies, their gimmick feels too similar to the failed geek chorus that was just axed from the Spiderman Turn Off the Dark production in New York. One of the great things about the Disney brand lies in the ability to make adults and children suspend their disbelief and accept even the most preposterous situations as real. Having your characters pointing out plot devices to the audience is somewhat akin to having the person playing Mickey at the theme park openly complain about how hot it is in the costume. It isn’t until the second act that the Bolger, Gonzales, and O’ Neill are able to shine, when their characters become more involved in the story. In fact, their second act song, “High Adventure”, where they come to aid their friend in his fight against Jafar stands out as one of the comic highpoints of the show.
As the title character, Adam Jacobs (Les Miserables) is likeable and gives a winning performance. The “king of thieves” angle seems downplayed in this stage show, and Aladdin is written mostly as a lost guy trying his best to make the right decisions as to not disappoint his deceased mother (who is never referred to in the film). The script makes him more of an Arabian Donny Osmond than a street smart survivor, but Mr. Jacobs plays it earnestly and he sings his Act 1 ballad “Proud of Your Boy” to the rafters.
In the role of Jasmine, Courtney Reed certainly looks the part, but this is a different Jasmine than we are used to seeing. The Ashford and Menken score for the show includes the act 1 number “Call Me Princess”, in which Jasmine tries to scare away her suitors by acting like a diva. The only problem is that we never really see her change from that demeanor through the rest of the show, making her come across more like a Kardashian sister than the strong willed woman in the film.
The most difficult task in the show belongs to Bay Area native, James Monroe Iglehart (Spelling Bee, Memphis) as the Genie. While no actor can try to duplicate an iconic performance created by Robin Williams in his prime, I was excited when I heard about this casting choice. Mr. Iglehart is a charismatic performer who was one of my favorites in the Tony-winning musical, Memphis. However, as much as I wanted to like him, this performance just didn’t click for me. Part of it is the material that he is given. The “pop culture” references that he has to work with include dated references to Christina Aguilera’s “Genie In a Bottle” and a sequence of playing “Deal or No Deal”, which has been off the air for three years. Mr. Iglehart’s bio includes a background in improv, so it’s disappointing that there weren’t more chances for him to lampoon things that will feel fresh and timely to the audience. If the creative team doesn’t trust him to pull that off, maybe they should look at another actor who can if this show continues down the road. Make no mistake, Iglehart is a bundle of energy with an agility you won’t find from most men his size. He cartwheels and split jumps across the stage during “Friend Like Me” and works himself to the point that I could see him sneaking a drink of water during an ensemble dance break. Ultimately though, his likeability doesn’t translate to a fully formed character. He comes across more like his Memphis character than he does a Genie.
Jonathan Freeman reprises his role as Jafar (he voiced the character for the movie). Like many of his co-stars in this show, his character feels watered down. In the movie, Jafar is a man driven by jealousy and a love for Jasmine that is unreturned. Here, the character is more of a one-dimensional, cookie cutter “villain”. The third act of the film focuses on Jafar taking control of the genie lamp, and using his wishes to nearly take over the kingdom. In this version of the show, that whole plot point seems to happen and be resolved within the last twelve minutes of the second act.
Director Casey Nicholaw tries his best to make this work given the limitations of the book, and limited budget of a regional production in Seattle. The key numbers like “A Whole New World” are staged beautifully. Other times, Genie’s entrances with a quick burst of fog and the actor visibly walking onto the stage from the wing, come across as cheap and unimaginative.
Ultimately, it seems as if the creative time has tried to reinvent this show as a musical comedy and you have to wonder why? The screenplay to the movie was fine as it is and there was likely a reason that some of the songs in this show were cut from the film. Why try to fix what isn’t broken? Are children and families who would pay to see this so into theater that they care about the inside jokes? This show works better in the second act, when it just focuses on telling the story of the four main characters. One would have to imagine that this production needs massive rewrites and a better clarity of tone before it could be considered ready for The Great White Way.
What about the less discerning critics? The kids. My 6 year old soon to be stepdaughter claims to have loved the show, but admitted she liked Mary Poppins more; a show she slept through in the second act.
Grade – C+