BWW Review: Everything Wrong with ALADDIN: The Musical (And Why You Should See It at Dr. Phillips Center Anyway)
ALADDIN is currently in the middle of a three-week run at the Dr. Phillips Center in Orlando, one of the longer stops on the Broadway show's extended North American tour.
This being Disney country, it's a smart choice for an extended stay. Then again, Broadway's ALADDIN has never earned the unflinching enthusiasm among Disney fans that the original film enjoys.
It's one of those money-dripping-off-the-stage shows that you absolutely want to see for yourself - especially with a cast as fantastic as the one in Orlando right now - but the story itself doesn't work as well.
Why? Every time I answer that, I start to feel like the Genie in "Prince Ali" when he's counting all those elephants, peacocks, and camels. There are a lot of problems here. Maybe not fifty-three or seventy-five or however many Persian monkeys he has, but I can definitely point to at least five things that keep this stage version one jump behind its cinematic counterpart.
So before I ring bells and bang the drums in honor of the "spectacular coterie" that is the current company on tour, let's take a little trip into the Cave of Blunders and examine all those baked-in-the-cake things they can't touch.
1. First things first: the villains are Ja-far from scary.
Is Aladdin a funny movie? Absolutely. Robin Williams made sure of that. But the film also takes its story seriously - and the protagonist's perils are real.
On stage, though, Jafar is a joke - a hammy, goatee-twirling cliché who sits on the sidelines practicing his maniacal laugh.
It's clever-ish that his Iago has been translated from a literal parrot to a man who merely "parrots" his boss's creed, but their interactions are broad and played exclusively for laughs.
As a dastardly duo, they aren't far removed from Bullwinkle's Boris and Natasha or The Muppets' Tex Richman and Bobo the Bear. Those characters work in absurdist settings and Saturday morning cartoons, but that's not what Aladdin is.
Like our hero himself, his fable has been underestimated and taken only at face value, reduced to a venue for the Genie's jokes (however enjoyable those may be).
At one point, the show asserts itself as "high adventure." But here's the thing: you can't have high adventure without high stakes. When your antagonists are asinine, the conflict falls flat.
2. Secondly, this Sultan's a snore.
Gone is the lovably aloof bumbler we grew up on. In the stage show, Sultan has been written like he's a high school principal - the Mr. Belding of Bagdad, but with none of the authority.
Most of his scenes find him positioned far downstage with a flat, bland backdrop behind him. His every appearance is plainly obvious as filler, a chance for the crew to ready a scene change behind his "palace walls." I might not mind that if he had some personality, but this Sultan's as stale as the crackers he crams down Iago's throat in the movie.
3. Weird complaint, I know, but... Aladdin has too many friends.
Every 80-minute movie must gain a little weight on its way to the stage. ALADDIN tries to beef itself up with three new characters in lieu of Abu: Aladdin's best friends, Babkak, Omar, and Kassim. Unfortunately, each is a character of one dimension, trapped in a B-plot of very little consequence.
Genie's "Friend Like Me" just doesn't have the same impact in a world where Aladdin already has an entourage. He needs to be a loner for his Cinderella story to work.
4. The new songs are all Agra-blah.
Unfortunately, none of the new numbers hold their own with the songbook that made the movie a classic.
Each of Disney's post-'92 takes on Aladdin has attempted to give Jasmine the ballad she had never had on screen. "These Palace Walls" probably comes closest to sticking the landing, but there's still something about the tempo that sucks the oxygen out of the theatre way too early in Act One.
Only "Proud of Your Boy" stands out as a real ruby - a tear-jerking power ballad sung beautifully by Jonah Ho'okano on tour. But it was written for the movie and released as a Clay Aiken single some sixteen years ago, so the musical only gets so much credit. If anything, it only serves to make the truly-new songs pale in comparison.
Another number ported over from the movie's deleted scenes is "High Adventure," a campy tune that works better on the cast recording than on stage but does at least give the three Al-migos something fun to do.
5. Act II has no chill.
If you thought Aladdin and Jasmine made it around the planet pretty quickly during "A Whole New World," just wait 'til you see how fast the finale unfolds here. All those shenanigans with Kassim & Co. have left very little time for actual story, so we end up with a scene in fast-forward.
In one particularly embarrassing bit of exposition, Genie explains the wish-wielding Jafar's first command while running onstage, meaning we're already well into Jafar's second wish (of three) by the time he has the lamp.
Don't look for any big display of cosmic super powers here, no death-defying showdown with a larger-than-life Jafar. That would require more than the five minutes allotted for resolution before we get back to the punchlines.
Even Walt Disney World's 20-minute FANATASMIC! manages to put a supersized snake on stage. It's a shame that, for all its spectacle elsewhere, the Broadway musical doesn't find some way to wow us in the end - or at least to slow things down.
The show at Dr. Phillips right now is essentially the same one I saw on Broadway, but somehow the set pieces seem to fit the stage better. Whereas I walked out of New York's New Amsterdam feeling underwhelmed by the spectacle, this Orlando run really delivers on glitz and glamor.
Jonah Ho'okano has an easy, earnest charisma as Aladdin. His vocals come across as slightly more effortful, but he nails them in the end. With a scrappy build, a toothy grin, and a shy kind of confidence, he's got his street rat down pat.
Jonathan Weir is precisely the Jafar that the book asks him to be, and as much as I wish the show's approach were different, there was a moment where I found myself sitting directly in front of him at the foot of the stage. His scathing scowl in my direction was utterly delightful. He is fully committed to the role, as is Reggie De Leon to his duty of comic relief as Iago.
Kaenaonalani Kekoa's Jasmine is as believable as someone you know in real life. She's officially only the second person I've heard sing "These Palace Walls" in a way that wasn't boring. (Arielle Jacobs is the first, and everyone should go listen to her wonderful debut album to hear that song really shine.)
Colt Prattes, Ben Chavez, and Zach Bencal are so strong as Kassim, Omar, and Babkak (respectively) that I found myself wanting to want their characters in the show. Alas, I still don't, but they're funny when they need to be, and boy do their harmonies sound nice in "High Adventure." They appear alongside an outstanding ensemble of singers and dancers who are often required to partake in silent conversations in the periphery and yet excel in creating atmosphere.
But the real star here is Michael James Scott, who brings an unbelievable amount of improvisational wit and physical energy to the role of Genie. Orlando is lucky - Scott isn't a permanent part of the tour, so his appearance here is a little bit of "Limited Time Magic" (coupled with his appearance in the Disney on Broadway concert series at Epcot's Festival of the Arts later this month). It's a big deal because Scott is heading back to Broadway in a few weeks to take over as Genie in New York, so we're truly getting a little sneak peek at what The Great White Way will see soon. (Scott's no stranger to the role, having already starred as Genie on Broadway and all around the world.)
Even if this diamond is a little rough, you don't want to miss your chance to see it for yourself. ALADDIN is already one of the most successful Broadway shows of all time, and anyone who loves the 1992 film (and that's most people) will undoubtedly find it easy to enjoy.
What do you think of ALADDIN on tour? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.
Photo Credit: Photos by Deen Van Meer, courtesy of the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts.