As a child, my very first Broadway show was seeing “Beauty at the Beast” at the Lunt-Fontanne back in 2005. The timeless classics Disney has brought to the stage have been an endless source of imagination for generations of young children across the globe. One of their latest spins into the theatrical space, is the story of the street urchin turned prince “Aladdin,” which while still running at Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theater has delighted audiences of all ages across the globe. Disney’s “Aladdin” returns to South Florida for a week of shows at the Adrienne Arsht Center from Jan 3-8 with tickets available here.
With a Persian rug curtain tapestry concealing the stage, the animated Marcus M. Martin introduces us to the land of Agrabah, a fictional city in the Middle East where our charismatic protagonist Aladdin is in the middle of stealing bread. Adi Roy plays the titular hero of the story with an undeniable swagger and charisma absolutely playing the character to the back of the house. Bringing “Aladdin” to film saw so many revisions before its original 1992 release, that when revisiting the early drafts for inspiration, book writer and lyricist Chad Beguelin used to tackle bringing the cartoon to stage. Along with, Tim Rice to supply lyrics, as the writer of “Aida” and a long time Andrew Lloyd Webber collaborator. Aladdin’s friends, the trio of Babkak, Omar, and Kasim replace the monkey sidekick Abu and bring a more slapstick foil to Aladdin’s more poised personality.
As we venture past the marketplace and into the palace, Princess Jasmine, portrayed by Senzel Ahmady is re-worked for the sensibilities of the 2010s when the musical was re-written. In the play, the troubled royal pines for independence in a society dictated by men in a far more literal sense. With a mixed voice belt, Ahmady brings a fresh take on the Disney princess mezzo-soprano vocal range. Similarly to Abu, Jasmine’s tiger Rajah is replaced by a new trio of Isir, Manal, and Rajah who play the princess’ attendants. While the original score by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman had radically changed following Ashman’s passing in 1991, Beguelin brings in new songs to flesh out character motivations. Jasmine is given her “I Want” song in the form of “These Palace Walls” which lyrically lacks the gravity of Ashman’s cut songs. While it is criminal that Lea Salonga only sang one song in the original film, the new songs given to Jasmine lack a level of “want” to drive her motivations beyond the palace walls. However, bringing back the Ashman penned song “Proud of Your Boy” as a bigger motif more than raises the stakes for the protagonist. Driving the antagonizing force, Anand Nagraj plays the villain Jafar with a flamboyant presence that drives his twisted behavior with his assistant Iago. Aaron Choi thankfully does not do a Gilbert Gottfried impersonation in “parroting” Jafar, and the re-visit of the script gives the actors the liberty to infuse their own personality into the characters.
Developed in 2010, the translation from movie to musical throws in some distinctly meta humor of the decade. Marvel and Star Wars references are tossed in, the show paints with broadstroke gags guaranteeing laughs from audiences of all ages. While Chad Beguelin’s book only takes so much deviation from the original film to varying levels of success, what truly makes “Aladdin” a spectacle of the stage is the choreography of Casey Nicholaw. Known for his work with “The Book of Mormon” and “The Prom,” Nicholaw’s penchant for massive ensemble pieces features an eclectic range of movement genres from jazz, tap, modern and even elements of belly dancing.
With the re-addition of songs like “High Adventure” featuring full-on Mel Brooks-level of physical comedy and meta-commentary on stage shows, the true spectacle comes in the introduction of the Genie by Marcus M. Martin. The role of the Genie in the 1992 film was animated based on Robin Williams’ standup audio and it introduced the first real moment of celebrity voice casting that revolutionized how animation studios develop characters, to the point where every animated film has to feature a celebrity cameo. Martin’s effervescent personality while tackling an intense show-stopping number in “Friend Like Me” feels tailor-made for the actor, only evoking Williams’ oeuvre when reciting dialogue from the film.
The original 1992 film of “Aladdin” featured some groundbreaking CGI and design, with so many iconic moments leaving the audience anticipating how they would pull off some of the stunts on stage. Jim Steinmeyer’s illusion design work truly makes for some positively awe-inspiring prestidigitation, however what drags the show down at times is the uneven set design. Bob Crowley’s sets lack some of the Disney imagination that makes shows like “The Lion King” or even “Frozen” able to bring some inspired visual elements that feel like the environment of the films without being direct and literal. The initial reveal of the Cave of Wonders is such a bewildering sight, mostly because it is a grateful change from screen based backdrops. Danny Troob’s orchestrations for a smaller pit ensemble of eight musicians versus the Broadway company which features fifteen performers still feels as full and retains the integrity of Alan Menken’s score. Tackling everything from the classic brassy theater sound, to more contemporary ballads and even some Arabian inspired songs, the tall order for the musical score is not lost in the touring houses.
Loaded with glitz, glamor and a heartwarming story for the ages “Aladdin” is a theatrical delight for the entire family. While the 1992 film is an unparalleled cinematic feat, the Broadway iteration of the tale of “One Thousand and One Nights” brings an evening of comedy, dance frenzy and beautifully adapted for the stage. “Aladdin” runs from Jan 3-8 at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts with tickets available here.