Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - March 20, 2014
Aladdin Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. Book and additional lyrics by Chad Beguelin. Based on the Disney film written by Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and directed and produced by John Musker and Ron Clements. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Musical supervision, incidental music & vocal arrangements by Michael Kosarin. Orchestrations by Danny Troob. Scenic design by Bob Crowley. Fight direction by J. Allen Suddeth. Sound design by Ken Travis. Hair design by Josh Marquette. Makeup design by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira. Illusion design by Jim Steinmeyer. Costume design by Gregg Barnes. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Cast: Adam Jacobs, James Monroe Iglehart, Courtney Reed, Brian Gonzales, Brandon O'Neill, Jonathan Schwartz, Clifton Davis, Don Darryl Rivera, Merwin Foard, Michael James Scott, and Jonathan Freeman as "Jafar," Tia Altinay, Mike Cannon, Andrew Cao, Lauryn Ciardullo, Joshua Dela Cruz, Yurel Echezarreta, Daisy Hobbs, Donald Jones Jr., Adam Kaokept, Nikki Long, Stanley Martin, Brandt Martinez, Michael Mindlin, Rhea Patterson, Bobby Pestka, Khori Michelle Petinaud, Aleks Pevec, Ariel Reid, Jennifer Rias, Trent Saunders, Jaz Sealey, Dennis Stowe, Marisha Wallace, Bud Weber.
The actor would be James Monroe Iglehart, who's playing the gag-a-minute Genie with all the force (and subtlety) of an out-of-control locomotive, and the number would be "Friend Like Me." On the off-chance you're not familiar with the movie, it's when the Genie utilizes his full range of "phenomenal cosmic powers" to prove his worth to his new master. On Broadway, of course, this means sky-high piles of gold coins transforming into shimmying showgirls, metallic staircases emerging from plain rock, and endless tap combinations swirling into existence from thin air, but it's not the specifics that matter most.
No, it's Iglehart, who (literally and figuratively) breathlessly leads the stage full of hoofers, leaps from wing to wing like a sentient Super Bouncy Ball, bellows his way through Disney song hits from animated features past, and, most importantly, does it all while wearing a 100-megawatt smile that both ingratiates you to his every word and motion, and makes you forgive him for the sweating and heavy panting that prove he knows exactly how hard he's working.
It's all too easy to understand that impulse. Everything else in Aladdin is, like the endlessly expansive desert in which it's set, dusty and unwelcoming. Yes, it's livelier and more watchable than Disney's other recent stage ventures, primarily because no Disney stage musical to date has seen a star turn like Iglehart's. But it's hardly more inspired than Newsies, Mary Poppins, The Little Mermaid, or Tarzan, to say nothing of Disney's earliest (and most successful) attempts, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.
Like those newer four shows, it suffers from a serious identity crisis: wanting to be a blockbuster, but without the writing, direction, design, or, most critically, guts to back up that aspiration. It also is creepily unsteady on matters of tone, as librettist Chad Beguelin (Elf, The Wedding Singer) has upset the movie's fragile but definite balance between seriousness and jokiness. There, you never doubted that Aladdin suffered a power trip and a moral crisis as he wooed the out-of-his league Princess Jasmine. Here, because practically everyone has come to Agrabah by way of the Borscht belt, injecting anachronistic comedy into practically every exchange (such tools were once only the province of the Genie), such matters are as elusive as pinning down the time and place.
Beguelin pays these social and political angles at best lip service, and director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw does not help matters. He's demonstrated in several shows his pedestrian facility with old-fashioned splash-and-dash (The Book of Mormon, Elf, The Drowsy Chaperone, Spamalot), but elevating this flimsily constructed story requires actual innovation. Maybe not the deeper ethnic flavor the setting would suggest and maybe not Julie Taymor's Total Theatre approach for The Lion King, but something that plays as more than a shrug.
The score, or most of it, asserts itself. The songs Alan Menken wrote for the film, either with the late Howard Ashman or with Tim Rice, remain glimmering jewels, especially as orchestrated for Michael Kosarin's 18-piece orchestra by Danny Troob. (A few new ones, which feature Beguelin's lyrics, are serviceable but forgettable.) And showstoppers would be suggested by, in addition to "Friend Like Me," at least "Prince Ali," when a wish-fulfilled Aladdin soars into the palace on a wave of newfound riches, and, naturally, "A Whole New World," when the lovers' burgeoning romance is likened to the independence and freedom flying (on a carpet) affords like nothing else.
But "Prince Ali" looks underpopulated, and "A Whole New World" is devoid of wonder, as if the floating rug's random aerial movements necessarily connote drama. Throughout, little is helped by Bob Crowley's set, which makes the ostensibly opulent palace look less inviting than the Las Vegasglitzy desert (and there's no obvious distinction between wealth and poverty), or Gregg Barnes's costumes, which find far more color and fun in street rags than in the pure-white court dress that swaths so much of the second act. (Natasha Katz's lighting design is considerably more successful.) Then there's the final scene, in which Aladdin must prove himself to win Jasmine and Jafar must get both his own dangerous wishes and his comeuppance; it's all over in a blink, and with two or three lines of dialogue, a potentially electric finale snuffed out by either a lack of ideas, a lack of money, a lack of interest, or all three.
Alas, genuine life is an uncommon feature here by any measure. The incredibly likeable Jacobs is obviously talented, but fails to project much in the way of charisma. Reed sings prettily, but is blander still, her Jasmine's cries for independence coming across as indifferent whining. Davis is acceptable, though not much more, as the Sultan, as are Brian Gonzales, Jonathan Schwartz, and Brandon O'Neill as Aladdin's partners in crime. But if not for Freeman's gleefully sneering overplaying, taking the role he voiced in the film to new heights of absurdist melodrama, the stage would be bereft of memorable portrayals.
Including, for the record, the rest of what Iglehart does. Living up to Robin Williams's bravura turn in the film is no easy task, and Iglehart excels at selling an unending stream of horrible jokes ("Now you and King Tut will finally have something in Tutankhamun!"). But there's no other personality there; the Genie is not sympathetic or personable beyond his way with that one song, and the writing's straining to make him the coolest non-corporeal in town ("Come for the hummus, stay for the floorshow!") grates more often than it amuses.
"Friend Like Me" is, however, more than enough. During its eight minutes, Iglehart represents the ultimate Broadway ideal of someone who can do anything, and does, because circumstances have left him no other choice. He ensures you can't look away, even though the rest of Aladdin seems determined to give you little, if anything, worth looking at or thinking about.