Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Aladdin is set in the fictional Arabian kingdom called Agrabah, ruled by a naïve sultan who is easily manipulated by his evil wazir, Jafar. Aladdin is a poor young man who grew up as an orphan on the streets of Agrabah, whose life is changed when he encounters the sultan's daughter, Princess Jasmine, who has disguised herself in order to escape the rigid strictures of palace walls. Aladdin's yearning to rise above his past and do something that would have made his parents proud of him, Jasmine's wish to overturn male-dominated convention and choose her own path in life, and Jafar's insatiable craving for wealth and power converge in what is a darn good story. Once Aladdin gets his hands on a magic lamp in which a Genie has been trapped for thousands of years, we have a humdinger of an adventure chock-full of romance, cutthroat knavery, super-powers, exotic locales, and a caravan of laughs.
Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw (also behind The Book of Mormon, among numerous other credits) pulled out all the stops in fashioning a show with dazzling production numbers; eye-popping visuals in the way of sets, costumes, lighting and special effects; and Chad Beguelin's joke-saturated book, ribald enough to feel "adult" while staying on the G-rated side of the line. It didn't hurt that he had great material in the way of the then ten-year-old Disney film, already considered a family classic, with bubbly tunes by composer Alan Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman and Tim Rice (who took over after Ashman's untimely death), including an Oscar-winning song ("A Whole New World") as well as an Oscar-winning musical score. The movie, though, had another secret ingredient: Robin Williams, giving a riotous voice performance as the Genie. Delivering jokes with the rapidity of a machine gun and changing his voice tone to embrace a cornucopia of emotions and accents, Williams could easily have over-powered the movie if the rest of it hadn't been so good.
The question on many minds when the property first appeared live on stage was whether an in-the-flesh Genie could possibly satisfy the expectations of audience members, almost all of whom would have seen the movie, if not in theaters, then on DVD (remember those?). To waves of happy surprise, Nicholaw pulled it off, anchored by a star-making, Tony Award winning performance by James Monroe Iglehart, along with a brilliant design team that included both an illusion designer and a special effects designer.
True, the Genie character plays on the trope of a heavy-set Black man moving with grace and vigor. Also, the thought of a very large man having been trapped in that bottle for eons of time is a funny one, though one should avoid examining it too closely, especially considering it is a Black man who, despite his girth and his powers, has been held in captivity. Though that was certainly not on the minds of the musical Aladdin's creators, it sometimes takes a concerted effort to forget the iniquities of the world we live in and grave errors of our forebears, and just let ourselves have a great time.
Iglehart does not appear in the touring production (he is currently starring on Broadway in a revival of Spamalot), but Marcus M. Martin more than holds his own as the Genie. Martin's dexterity in delivering lines faster than a major league pitch, while constantly adapting them to different accents and attitudes, is dazzling, and the grace with which he executes Nicholaw's choreography is amazing. He displays complete authority in sporting Gregg Barnes' flashy Arabian Nights chic costumes and takes full command of the three biggest numbers–and are they ever big!–"Arabian Nights," "Friend Like Me," and "Prince Ali." Whenever he is on stage, it's hard to look anywhere else.
Having said that, Adi Roy holds his own and then some as Aladdin. He too brings great physicality to the stage, though it is less unexpected given his lithe physique that is well suited to spending most of the show without a shirt under his vest. He conveys a nice blend of the cocky playfulness of a boy who has succeeded by his wits while growing up in the streets, as in his first number, "One Step Ahead," with earnest self-doubt about his prospect of ever being more than a street urchin, beautifully expressed in his very next number, "Proud of Your Boy." Roy has a pleasing voice and a charm that makes him easy to root for.
As Princess Jasmine, Senzel Ahmady does a good job of conveying her immediate attraction to that boy in the marketplace, someone able to offer her experiences she never could have cloistered in the palace. Ahmady makes Jasmine a full-dimensional character and not a plastic princess, and has a lovely voice, though in vocals she seemed to strain a bit for the high notes at the performance I attended. Still, she expressively delivers her solo "These Palace Walls" (a new song for the musical by Menken and lyricist Chad Beguelin) and the duets with Aladdin, "A Million Miles Away" (Menken/Beguelin) and Oscar winner, "A Whole New World." The latter, by the way, is sung while riding on a magic carpet. A pivotal scene in the movie, it is well staged here, though projections of the earth below might have been even more effective than the illusion of flying among the stars, which rather than show them a whole new world, takes them out of the world.
As for the rest of the cast, they are all aces. Anand Nagraj is convincingly despicable as the evil Jafar, and Aaron Choi cuts up with aplomb as his annoying (in a very funny way) parrot sidekick, Iago. Sorab Wadia comes across well as the Sultan, and Jake Letts, Nathan Levy, and Colt Prattes are terrific as Aladdin's three pals who scrounge the streets with him at the start and then back him up when the going gets rough. The threesome shines in "High Adventure," a paean to bravado that breaks into choreographed dueling with scimitars. They also make a great quartet when joined by Aladdin in "Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim." The hardworking ensemble move, look and sound fabulous, running through production number after production number, and I lost count of the many costume changes.
Bob Crowley's set designs and Daniel Brodie's work on projections do a remarkable job of creating images that range from splendor to squalor with a cinematic feel, such as in placing the Sultan's palace in perspective to give a sense of its immensity, as well as the immensity of the manicured grounds that surround it. The design for the cave in which Aladdin encounters the Genie is nothing less than breathtaking. Natasha Katz's lighting design and Ken Travis' sound design are also first rate. The orchestra conducted by James Dodgson sound terrific.
The story of Aladdin gained popularity in the West as a selection in the "Book of One Thousand and One Nights," called "The Arabian Nights" in its first English translation, published early in the eighteenth century. "Aladdin" was not one of the original tales in that collection, which dates back well into the Islamic Golden Age, but was added in 1710 by French traveler and translator Antoine Galland who heard the story while doing business in Syria. It turns out that the other entry in "The Arabian Nights" best known in the West, "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," was also brought to the collection by Galland. This perhaps reflects their particular adaptability as tales that speaks to western sensibilities, as demonstrated by how much love our audience has for Aladdin.
I thought that the Disney Theatrical Productions put on a great show when Aladdin played at the Orpheum six years back. Sometimes it feels like the passing of years allows touring companies to lose some of their mojo. Not this crew. The entire company, the technical elements, the musicians, the lights and sound, are crisp and fully loaded. It is hard to imagine a better performance of this wonderful show.
Aladdin runs through December 10, 2023, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-339-7007 or visi hennepintheatretrust.org. For information on the tour, visit aladdinthemusical.com/tour/
Book: Chad Beguelin; Music: Alan Menken; Lyrics: Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin; Director and Choreographer: Casey Nicholaw; Orchestrations: Danny Troob; Scenic Design: Bob Crowley; Costume Design: Gregg Barnes; Lighting Design: Natasha Katz; Sound Design: Ken Travis; Hair Design: Josh Marquette; Make-Up Design: Milagros Medina-Cerdeira; Illusion Design: Jim Steinmeyer, Rob Lake; Special Effects Design: Jeremy Chernick; Projection Design: Daniel Brodie; Fight Director: J. Allen Suddeth; Music Supervisor, Incidental Music and Vocal Arrangements: Michael Kosarin; Dance Music Arrangements: Sam Davis; Music Director/Conductor: James Dodgson; Dance Music Arrangements: Glen Kelly; Music Coordinator: Michael Aarons; Casting: Tara Rubin Casting, Kevin Metzger-Timson CSA; Production Stage Manager: Andrew Bacigalupo; Associate Director: Ben Clare; Associate Choreographer: John MacInnis; Dance Supervisor: Jennifer Rias, Executive Producer: Anne Quart.
Cast: Senzel Ahmady (Jasmine), Kolten Bell (Razoul/ensemble), Daniel Brackett (ensemble), Brandon Burks (Prince Abdullah/ensemble), Kyle Caress (swing), Aaron Choi (Iago), Edward Cuellar (swing), Nathaniel Hirst (ensemble), Evin Johnson (ensemble), Tyler Johnson-Campion (shop owner/ensemble), Nicole Lamb (swing), Brandon J. Large (henchman/ensemble), Lizzy Marie Legregin (attendant/ensemble), Jake Letts (Babkak), Nathan Levy (Omar), Marcus M. Martin (Genie), Sonia Monroy (attendant/ensemble), Angelina Mullins (ensemble), Anand Nagraj (Jafar), Adriana Negron (attendant/fortune teller/ensemble), Colt Prattes (Omar), Hillary Porter (swing), Adi Roy (Aladdin), Cameron Sirian (henchman/ensemble), Kyra Smith (swing), Taylor Mackenzie Smith (ensemble), Asten Stewart (swing), Sorab Wadia (Sultan), Jessica Mallare White (ensemble).