Thursday, March 20, 2014

Disney Works Its Magic Again

Review:  Aladdin

Rumor has it that there is one sequin in the Genie's costume for every million dollars Disney expects to make off this show.

After adapting Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King into stage musicals with varying degrees of success, Disney has finally gotten around to giving Aladdin, the sole unadapted film of it's early 90s renaissance, the Broadway treatment.  And in a feat of theatrical magic, this new musical comedy manages to strike the perfect balance between honoring its source material and reinventing it for the stage.  Moreso than any previous Disney musical, Aladdin's additions to the source material feel organic and necessary rather than tacked on and superfluous, meshing seamlessly with everything that made the film an instant classic.  The slick, sparkling production currently wowing audiences at the New Amsterdam Theatre is guaranteed to make you feel like a kid again, with the kind of eye-popping production values only Disney-level money can buy.

For those who have somehow avoided the Oscar-winning film these past twenty years, Aladdin tells the story of the titular "street rat" who steals to survive while dreaming of something more.  A chance encounter with the strong-willed Princess Jasmine leaves Aladdin head over heels in love with her, but the law of the land states that only a prince may marry the princess.  When Aladdin comes into possession of a magic lamp, the wisecracking Genie who lives inside promises to grant him three wishes, giving Aladdin everything he needs to make his dreams come true, provided he can keep the lamp out of the evil Jafar's power hungry hands.

The musical adheres closely to the film's structure, while also incorporating material that was cut during its development.  Aladdin is now accompanied by three fellow thieves named Babkak, Omar, and Kassim, who serve as both sidekicks and foils for our hero while providing plenty of comic relief.  (Unfotunately, Aladdin's simian sidekick Abu hasn't made the transition from screen to stage, although he is cleverly referenced during one of the show's many production numbers.)  The stage show also attempts to beef up Jasmine's character with a few extra songs and some token dialogue about strong, independent women, although this material doesn't add any layers to the character that weren't already present in the film.  All of the changes and additions to the narrative are well-realized and cleverly integrated in Chad Beguelin's well-written if workmanlike book, which also faithfully recreates all of the film's most iconic moments.

The movie's songs by Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman are all present, often in expanded arrangements that sound fantastic.  "Arabian Nights" has been transformed into a magnificent choral number that sends chills down the spine, while "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali" have been given swinging jazz makeovers.  The show also includes the beautiful ballad "Proud of Your Boy," originally written for the film but cut from the finished feature, which acts as a constant touchstone for the character of Aladdin during its many reprises.  There's also a rollicking production number called "Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim" and thrilling swashbuckling tune called "High Adventure."  All of the new music by composer Alan Menken (with additional lyrics by bookwriter Beguelin) meshes perfectly with the pre-existing tunes, even if none of them quite reaches the heights of the film's original seven.

While the material for the show is strong, the direction and production values are stronger, and they are what truly propel Aladdin into must-see territory.  Director/choreography Casey Nicholaw helms the production with an unbridled joy for the material that is positively infectious, with choreography and staging to match.  As he proved with his work on The Book of Mormon, Nicholaw knows his way around a production number, and his continually slick choreography builds each dance to an ecstatic crescendo.  His playful work on the aforementioned "Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim" turns a number obviously created as filler into an early highlight, and Act II opener "Prince Ali" is equally sumptuous.  But the crowning jewel of this production is Nicholaw's elaborately staged "Friend Like Me," a legitimate showstopper with a dazzling array of inventive dancing, magic tricks, sight gags, and even fireworks (that's right, fireworks).   The thunderous applause that greeted this number on the night I saw the show was wholly earned, and it simply must be seen to be believed.

Of course, Nicholaw isn't working in a vacuum, and the resplendent production design goes a long way towards making Aladdin such a beauty to behold.  Gregg Barnes' costumes contain an entire season's worth of beading and sequins, and his saturated color pallet perfectly encapsulates the show's exotic locale.  Barnes' work is so strong that Nicholaw is able to structure "Prince Ali" around a literal parade of costumes, and the multiple costume reveals throughout the show are a joy to behold.  Set designer Bob Crowley takes something of a back seat to Barnes, but his work is equally impressive, especially in conjunction with Natasha Katz's lighting design.  The particular combination of lighting and set design during "A Whole New World's" iconic magic carpet ride is stunning in its simplicity and beauty.  All told, the production design of Aladdin is the most outright gorgeous of any musical of the past five years.

Performance-wise the show is more of a mixed bag, with the slickness of the production and the acting sometimes hindering the expression of genuine emotion.  Adam Jacobs makes for a dashingly handsome Aladdin, with a golden voice that sounds particularly lovely on "Proud of Your Boy."  He has the character's roguish charm down pat, but unfortunately he isn't given a lot to work with by the beautiful but sometimes wooden Courtney Reed as Princess Jasmine.  Their chemistry is decidedly lopsided in Jacobs' favor, although they sell the Oscar-winning duet "A Whole New World" with aplomb.

The supporting characters are another story entirely, bringing down the house thanks to the artistic freedom of not having to carry an entire show.  James Monroe Iglehart's riotous performance as the scene stealing Genie provides the evening's biggest belly laughs, and his high energy charisma gives the enormous production numbers a much-needed jumping off point.  Jonathan Freeman, the original voice of Jafar from the film, recreates the villain for the stage with the kind of gleefully bad behavior and shameless scenery chewing that is the hallmark of a good Disney villain.  Freeman is ably matched by his cohort in crime, Don Darryl Rivera's hilarious Iago (who is no longer a parrot, but still Jafar's abrasive sidekick), and the duo's comic timing is impeccable.  It's a shame the pair doesn't have more stage time, but they make what they have count.

Few shows arrive on Broadway with such lofty expectations as Aladdin, and thankfully the production delivers on almost all fronts.  Alan Menken's Oscar-winning score sounds more glorious than ever, and Chad Beguine's book recreates all of the iconic moments from the film while seamlessly adding a plethora of new material.  Expertly staged by the preternaturally gifted Casey Nicholaw, the game cast turns out showstopper after showstopper, although occasionally the show's heart gets lost in the shuffle.  Furthermore, the show is unabashedly, breathtakingly gorgeous in a way few shows are allowed to be anymore, making it a feast for the eyes and ears.  Aladdin is a surefire blockbuster, and will make even the most jaded of theatregoers feel like a kid again, if only for a few fleeting hours.

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