Thursday, April 10, 2014

Disney's Aladdin at the New Amsterdam Theatre

Disney Theatrical Productions have once again dipped into the well of its well-known animated musicals to bring their take on Aladdin to Broadway. A journey of several years with productions along the way in Seattle and Toronto, Aladdin is sure to please audiences with its' high production values, familiar songs and beloved characters.  Many may dismiss the production's shortcomings due to the show's target family audience. Yet, with the quality of such earlier productions as The Lion King, Mary Poppins and Newsies, family audiences would not be amiss in demanding a better evening of theater than Aladdin provides.

Along the road to Broadway the stage concept for Aladdin has evolved. Gone are any talking animals, although one of the film's animals makes a brief, amusing cameo appearance. Going back to earlier concepts for the film, Aladdin now has three thieving friends as his sidekicks. Princess Jasmine still finds herself yearning for true love instead of an arranged marriage, a goal that seems antiquated in the wake of recent Disney/Pixar princesses such as Brave's Merida who decides to fight for her own hand.

The best thing about the decision to bring Aladdin to the stage is the restoration of some of the late Howard Ashman's songs that were discarded for the film. In particular the haunting ballad "Proud of Your Boy" sung by a wistful Aladdin to his recently deceased mother brings some emotional depth to the handsome scoundrel whose story we see unfold.

It is the story that is the biggest problem with Aladdin. Somewhere along the way from film to the stage the heart of the story has become lost. The familiar tale of the "diamond in the rough" street rat who goes on a journey of discovery to happily ever after with the Sultan's daughter is here. Chad Beguelin's book goes for broad comedy and easy laughs over real emotion and character development. The only genuine moments are few and fleeting.  The emotional stakes are low. Remembering the film there was actual conflict for Aladdin in allowing Jasmine to love him for himself without the trappings of feigned royalty. The final confrontation with the evil Jafar was dangerous. Here the ending is anti-climatic, no one is in danger of getting hurt and the threat is over swiftly so we can get to one more big production number and the audience can pour out onto 42nd Street humming the score.

Despite its shortcomings there are good things about this production starting with the high quality that one expects from Disney Theatrical Productions. Bob Crowley's scenic design is appropriately opulent as is Gregg Barnes blinding bright costumes.  Alan Menken's score is pleasantly conducted by Michael Kosarin leading the 18 member orchestra. Unfortunately a few of the numbers, particularly the Academy Award-winning song "A Whole New World" actually sound slight making you wish for a more rich orchestration at times. Casey Nicholaw's direction and choreography is laid on with a broad brush that seems to fit the go for the glitz style of the show.

The cast does as it can with the mostly one-dimensional characters. As the newer characters, Brian Gonzales, Jonathan Schwartz and Brandon O'Neill are broadly comic as the friends and sidekicks Babkak (the hungry one), Omar (the cowardly one) and Kassim (the hot-headed one). Don Darryl Rivera makes Iago an eager little evil apprentice. Jonathan Freeman, reprising the role he voiced in the film, channels a bit of elegant villainy in his Jafar. Clifton Davis is a concerned princess-pecked father as the Sultan.

Courtney Reed has the feistiness of Princess Jasmine and although her singing voice is not consistent when she reaches the famous duet of "A Whole New World" she is fine. Adam Jacobs' Aladdin is handsome and charming with a blazing smile. He gives Aladdin what depth he can, mostly through Howard Ashman's lyrics in "Proud of Your Boy" and the few moments of real feeling he gets when discussing freedom with the Genie of the Lamp.

As for the Genie himself, anyone taking on that role has to live with the fact that the Walt Disney animation team managed to animate Robin Williams' brain. The performance by Mr. Williams in the film is the definition of iconic and it takes an actor of great charisma to put their own stamp on the role. James Monroe Iglehart has done the impossible and makes the audience almost forget the original film performance. He is commanding from the moment he enters to narrate "Arabian Nights." Disappearing for almost the entire first act, when he re-appears he raises the energy whenever he alights. "Friend Like Me" is a true-showstopping number that travels many, many, many tangents to its rousing conclusion. Mr. Iglehart is gregarious and sharp witted, yet his Genie has a heart-ache that yearns for freedom from always being forced to grant wishes. When Aladdin breaks the Genie's heart, you get a pang of real feeling for the Genie that you wish was present in more moments in the show.

Aladdin will enjoy a long run on Broadway. If only the quality of the entire production matched its box-office thus making Aladdin truly a worthy addition to the better-quality Disney Theatrical Productions that it joins.

Disney's Aladdin is playing the New Amsterdam Theatre on Broadway. For tickets and other performance information please visit or

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