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BWW Reviews: Disney Does Musical Comedy Right With ALADDIN

They used to call them tired businessman musicals; fast-moving, slickly-produced musical comedies that livened up evenings for overworked white-collar gents with lots of gags, some catchy tunes and pretty chorus girls in sexy outfits. They weren't meant to be art. They were meant to be hits.

Courtney Reed and Adam Jacobs (Photo: Deen Van Meer)

Well, believe it or not, the latest entry in Disney's Broadway parade might be considered a 21st Century variation on the theme. Call Aladdin, based on the 1992 animated feature, a tired businessperson's musical. The laughs are plentiful, the songs are bright and jazzy, there's not an actor dressed as an animal (or inanimate object) in sight and romance and cuteness are kept to a minimum, as are many of the costumes worn by both male and female cast members.

The hot Broadway orchestrations by Danny Troob and the sight gag about New York souvenir shopping barely a minute into the script are early signs that the Arabian nights setting is not going to be taken very literally in director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw's fast and funny production. The setting, Agrabah, is said to have "more glitz and glamour than any other fictional city in the world!" Chad Beguelin's book is written in jaunty contemporary English, full of pop culture jokes and ridiculous puns, and the multicultural cast members make no attempt to look or sound like a middle eastern cliché. Think vaudeville, think borscht belt, but don't think too much.

Composer Alan Menken's film score (with Howard Ashman and Tim Rice each contributing lyrics) is augmented by new numbers with words by Beguelin.

Playing it straight and spunky are Adam Jacobs, as the poverty-stricken title character who steals for survival, and Courtney Reed as the young princess who wishes for a chance to marry for love and be an equal partner to her husband, instead of following her aging father's desire that she marry a prince who will rule over the land. ("Why are you so determined to pawn me off to any Tom, Dick or Hassim that comes our way?")

James Monroe Iglehart (Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann)

The couple meets when the princess, Jasmine, tries to escape from the palace disguised as a commoner, but it isn't long before she's caught and sent back to her royal digs. Needing to pass himself off as a prince in order to court her, Aladdin gets assistance from a magic genie from a lamp (James Monroe Iglehart), who has the power to grant wishes and to stop Broadway shows dead in their tracks.

A large man with a big voice and a mega-watt smile, Iglehart takes over the proceedings Groucho Marx style, spewing a rapid-fire succession of non-sequitur irreverence like an over-caffeinated Vegas lounge emcee. ("Come for the hummus, stay for the floorshow!")

Late in the first act, Nicholaw builds a hilarious production number around him to the clever "Friend Like Me", loaded with showgirls and showboys, shout-outs to Let's Make A Deal, Dancing With The Stars, Oprah Winfrey ("You get a wish! You get a wish!") and an American Idol type medley of Disney hits. The light-footed Iglehart shticks his way through the mini-spectacle with frenetic charm and killer pipes.

But he's not the only one delivering the comical goods. Jonathan Freeman seems to be having a ball channeling Cyril Ritchard as the deliciously evil Jafar, the role he voiced in the original film. His henchman, Iago, played as a parrot in the movie, is now a wisecracking wart of a human, terrifically embodied by Don Darryl Rivera. Aladdin's monkey pal has also been replaced by humans; a Ritz Brothers style trio of singing, dancing and sword-playing buffoons played by Brian Gonzales, Jonathan Schwartz and Brandon O'Neill.

The splendidly opulent designs by Bob Crowley (sets), Gregg Barnes (costumes) and Natasha Katz (lights) splash the stage with colorful pastels and glimmering golds. The technological coup of the evening is a full-stage magic carpet ride among the stars as Jacobs and Reed fall in love to "A Whole New World."

But the real magic of Aladdin is watching the talented company plunge into Nicholaw's wild and crazy staging with the sole intention of entertaining the pants off of you like it's nobody's business.

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