BWW Review: ALADDIN and his Genie Conjure Up Fun and Magic at OC's Segerstrom Center
Over the years, Disney has certainly shown its winning and very lucrative knack for expanding upon its many properties and franchises beyond its original forms. From television spin-offs and live-action remakes to video game and theme park experiences (then back again), the lifespan of a single entity in the Disney-verse seemingly has unlimited possibilities and lifetimes.
It's no surprise, then, that the Disney theatrical arm of the company has drawn extensively from this pool of material and has met with some (if inconsistent) success of its own during its lifetime. What began triumphantly with the inspired stage adaptation of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST continues to be a significant force in musical theater, with multiple productions of THE LITTLE MERMAID, MARY POPPINS, or NEWSIES among others being produced somewhere on a stage near you even as I write this review. And then, of course, there's the global stage hit THE LION KING whose mass appeal and visual "wow" factors into why it continues to be a box office draw worldwide.
Right before FROZEN got its own stage adaptation, the other recent Disney property to merit its own Broadway stage adaptation happens to be the delightful ALADDIN, a fun, lively, and entertaining repackaging of the originally fun, lively, and entertaining animated film released back in 1992. While this Casey Nicholaw-helmed big-budget extravaganza of dazzling sights and sounds is quite a faithful adaptation in terms of storyline and tone, the stage version abandons the impossible things it couldn't remotely replicate from the animated movie, but instead smartly utilizes the limitations of---and the unique qualities of---musical theater to produce a show that is, astonishingly, still an overall satisfying sensory treat.
It's no wonder that it continues to be a hit on Broadway, overseas, and on the road right here in North America, where it is currently on the tail end of its three-week engagement at OC's Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, CA through March 23, 2019.
Enchanting with its visuals and hilarious with its witty one-liners, ALADDIN checks off all the ingredients of an enjoyable musical comedy aimed at a mass audience: a familiar plot centered on a scrappy but sweet young hero with huge aspirations, who is surrounded by wit-dispensing supporting characters that either help (comedically) or hinder (evil-ly) his valiant quest(s). Throw in a magical tap-dancing, wish-granting ham of a buddy with lots of uproarious meta references, and a forward-thinking modern love interest that's both royalty-borne and spunky, and you've got a show that has plenty of ways to provide satisfied smiles from a cross-section of theatergoers in attendance.
Just like the animated movie it's based on, the stage version of ALADDIN is still Disney's revisionist take on the legendary Arabic folktale of the same name, but also set in the fictional Middle Eastern kingdom of Agrabah. Small-time thief and orphaned "street rat" Aladdin (here played with nimble and endearing derring do by Clinton Greenspan) survives daily by stealing food from local street merchants with the aid of his three best pals, Babkak (Zach Bencal), Omar (Philippe Arroyo), and Kasim (Jed Fedder).
Aladdin, as expected, has huge, aspirational dreams, which fuel his daily drive more than anything. In belt-tastic song, Aladdin expresses his longing to become more than just the "riff raff, street rat" that others see him as, and to ultimately make his long-deceased mom proud of him. But at the present time, his petty crime ring with his boys will have to suffice, which is a surprisingly efficient enterprise that continues to anger the King's police force who must often give chase, but can't seem to catch up to them (well, to Aladdin, anyway). It probably helps that aside from being quick on his feet, Aladdin is quite the hottie---a trait he uses to charm his fellow neighbors (mostly female) in protecting him from capture.
It is this very helpful and aesthetically-pleasing trait that he uses to win the trust (and, let's face it, attraction) of Princess Jasmine (Lissa deGuzman), who on this one particular day has decided to run away from home and escape beyond the Palace walls. After rejecting yet another potential suitor for her arranged marriage that has been shoved in her face by her super-protective dad, the Sultan (Jerald Vincent), the Princess complains to her multiple indentured servants before donning a commoner's disguise for her adventure through the streets to gain a bit of "freedom" from her gilded cage of privilege and wealth.
In the midst of her excursion, super-smitten Aladdin rushes her away from the guards back to his humble hidden digs for a gratis tour. There they each exchange longing romantic looks while lamenting in code about their respective sad lives. Unfortunately, their brief time alone is quickly cock-blocked by the police who have somehow discovered Aladdin's hideout. While the Princess is ushered back inside the palace---thinking her influence has saved her handsome new friend from trouble---Aladdin is actually sentenced immediately to death, only to be reprieved by the Sultan's evil, overtly-dressed Grand Vizier, Jafar (Jonathan Weir) and his smart-mouthed human (non-parrot) lackey Iago (the hilarious Jay Paranada).
Jafar, it turns out, has his own lofty aspirations as well. Posing as a loyal advisor to the Sultan, Jafar's true ultimate goal is to snatch the throne for himself. His solution to oust both the Sultan and his daughter is to take possession of a fabled magic lamp that apparently entitles its temporary owner access to an all-powerful genie that grants three wishes. The problem? The lamp is deeply hidden inside the mysterious "Cave of Wonders," which one may enter only if he or she is a worthy "diamond in the rough."
Thus, in comes Aladdin, who is earlier personally identified by the deep scruffy voice of the Cave to be that very diamond. So, Jafar makes an enticing deal: Aladdin's death sentence will be commuted if he agrees to voluntarily enter the cave to retrieve a lamp for Jafar. Sounds simple enough, right? Aladdin, naturally, agrees to the deal.
And thus, Aladdin's next adventure begins. He successfully enters the cave and is awed by all the riches and treasures that line the walls, utterly confused why he's there just to grab some lamp for Jafar instead of all these gold and jewels. Although he is pre-warned about not touching anything else but the lamp, Aladdin's greed for bling for himself takes over. As he pockets a few coins, Aladdin angers the booming voice of the cave, who then shuts itself off and traps our vested hero inside.
All alone and blanketed in darkness, Aladdin assumes this ordinary lamp might at least be a light source. He rubs the lamp...and POOF! Out comes a sassy, quick-witted, over-the-top, and over dramatic Genie (played by the sublime Major Attaway) who tells him that he can now be granted three wishes. Dumbstruck with disbelief, Aladdin initially has a hard time believing him. The Genie, naturally, takes the challenge and via the most elaborate, most eye-popping production number I've experienced in quite some time, he shows off his powers and the many possible kinds of wishes Aladdin could have instantly fulfilled, thanks to having, as the Genie puts it, a "Friend Like Me."
Convinced the Genie's wish-granting gift is the key to seeing his dreams fulfilled, Aladdin first cons the Genie into, essentially, a freebie wish---to get themselves out of the cave---and then wishes for the Genie to be turned into a Prince, which, he thinks, will make it easier for Jasmine to like him, instead of that smelly street rat with no money or status she met before. Sure! Sounds like a foolproof plan!
Remarkably glitzy and broadly amusing, the stage version of ALADDIN is a worthy and spry update of Disney's now animated classic (which, this year, will also get the "live action" treatment on the big screen like Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, and the upcoming Dumbo and The Lion King), which will please both fans of the original and those in the mood for a great big dazzling (and bedazzled) Broadway musical. To those wondering if the show is just an expanded version of the Aladdin stage show that ran for many years at the Hyperion Theater at Disney's California Adventure theme park a few miles north of Segerstrom Center, I can wholeheartedly assure you that what you will experience here is quite different, and it is definitely a bigger, better, Broadway-caliber upgrade that involve significant improvements in story and execution from that simpler show.
Not only will you enjoy hearing amplified theatrical rearrangements of the original Howard Ashman songs that he contributed prior to his death (including the lovely cut song "Proud of Your Boy," beautifully reinstated) as well as Tim Rice's beautiful lyrical contributions that include "A Whole New World," the added songs contributed by new lyricist (and book writer) Chad Beguelin are seamlessly harmonious with Alan Menken's now expanded score. The touring orchestra under the baton of music director Faith Seetoo make the music soar, enveloping the theatre with the soundtrack many of us fondly remember but now in a fresh new way.
Aside from keeping the Genie's wacky, improv-like humor in tact and ever present---and brilliantly executed by the wonderfully full-out Attaway, earning him well-deserved extensive ovations and cheers throughout---the production also heightens and showcases what musical theater shows do best: dazzling costumes and sets (courtesy of Gregg Barnes and Bob Crowley, respectively) paired with a winning, very athletically-inclined ensemble that sings, dances and tumbles through high-energy showstoppers reminiscent of old school Broadway "all-singing, all-dancing" musicals.
The resulting show may not have the magical ease that animated films can display, but instead, ALADDIN---in musical theater form---is a peppy, excessively buoyant, and all-ages friendly musical that combines wit and whimsy with a surprising amount of heart and romance. Nicholaw didn't set out to do a mere transfer of the film to the stage; rather, it is a rejiggered show using the language and machinations of musical theater in clever ways. The Genie may not fly or visually morph instantly into various celebrities, but he spins, leaps, and tap dances like his feet are on fire---while still honoring the silly template established by Robin Williams! Iago may not be a flying parrot this time around, but Paranada's playfully ridiculous quips and hilarious squawks certainly make up the difference. Jafar may not (spoiler alert) turn into a fire-breathing dragon, but Weir's excellent, over-the-top wickedness is short-hand enough to convey his character's out-of-control maniacal madness.
Alas, as entertaining as the show is, it accomplishes the task despite a few flaws. The Genie, as you might expect, is a ball of kinetic energy filled with sass and snarky snaps that keep the audience in stitches. The hilarious Attaway truly steals the show with every appearance, so understandably, it takes a while for the show to perk back up whenever he exits (his involvement at the top of the show was a smart reimagining of the opening song). The show doesn't really get super caffeinated again until Greenspan's Aladdin gets trapped in the Cave of Wonders and is introduced to the Genie, who, after "Friend Like Me" literally stopped the show. Anything after that moment is indeed a tough act to follow.
The addition of three new sidekicks, Omar, Kassim, and Babkak, who were absent from the original film is a curiously peculiar substitute---if more logistically easier---for Abu, Aladdin's monkey pal. While the trio do dole out a few funny lines here and there, and provide some amusing sight gags (but a few groans for some corny puns), they don't add much plot wise nor do they really serve much to round out Aladdin as a character. I get it... Aladdin needs a crew, a gang of buddies that he can (occasionally) rely on for, um... palace infiltration? In the original film, Aladdin was truly alone in the world, with only a non-human, verbally-limited monkey as his sole source for companionship. That made his situation much more dire and which is why we buy the fact that he and the Genie (and even the flying carpet) quickly become his close friends.
Luckily, Aladdin himself is already a charismatic character that doesn't need an entourage of hanger-ons, and the charismatic Greenspan does a great job of channeling an "industrious" young man who's not so much a bad boy, but a harmless, non-threatening scamp who's slightly naughty but is really, deep down, a kind-hearted sweet guy who just wants to be a better man, particularly to make his mother proud. He, of course, falls for a very strong-willed, highly opinionated young woman whom he feels is way out of his league and so he goes about trying to figure out a way to get this Princess to like him--a person who has, all his life, seen himself as a less than worthy person and therefore could only be liked/loved if he was someone completely different.
DeGuzman's Jasmine---a character that remains faithful to the empowered woman in the original film---is an excellent counterpoint to Greenspan's title character. When the two butt heads, you totally buy that they are eventually going to snog sometime in the future. When they go on the magic carpet ride to sing "A Whole New World," the entire audience is swept off their feet in still one of the most romantic scenes in musical theater. In a show filled with enchantment and otherworldly magic, this bit of gravity-defying theater effect remains a smile-inducer no matter what age or background you may be.
Overall, ALADDIN is a winning, dream-come-true reinvention of the Disney film and deserves to revel in all its success. Come for the romance, stay for the Genie.
Disney's ALADDIN - The Broadway Musical
Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, and Chad Beguelin. Book by Chad Beguiln. Musical Supervision, Incidental Music, and Arrangements by Michael Kosarin. Orchestrations by Danny Troob. Musical Direction and Conducting by Faith Seetoo. Scenic design by Bob Crowley. Costume design by Gregg Barnes. Lighting design by Natasha Katz. Sound design by Ken Travis. Illusion design by Jim Steinmeyer. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw.
Photos from the National Tour of Disney's ALADDIN by Deen Van Meer (unless otherwise indicated).
Performances of the National Tour of Disney's ALADDIN at Segerstrom Center for the Arts continue through Saturday, March 23, 2019. Tickets can be purchased online at www.SCFTA.org, by phone at 714-556-2787 or in person at the SCFTA box office (open daily at 10 am). Segerstrom Center for the Arts is located at 600 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. For tickets or more information, visit SCFTA.org.
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