BWW Review: ALADDIN Is A New Take on an Old-Fashioned Genre at the Benedum
Among Disney's Broadway musicals, there are three tiers of quality. At the top are the shows that work, completely and unequivocally satisfying and justifying their existences. (Most would consider Beauty and the Beast the prime example of this; I would go as far as to say Newsies probably fits the bill as well, having improved substantially upon the original film.) In the middle are the ones that are good but not great, with winning attributes that nonetheless do not quite stand up to the memory of the movie. (Key example here? Julie Taymor's visually stunning The Lion King, which most people seem to agree is at its best in the now-iconic first five minutes.) Down at the bottom are the misfires, where neither the material, the additions, nor the staging lives up to expectation. (The Little Mermaid and Tarzan are the key examples here.) After nearly twenty years of gestation, the Disney Renaissance classic Aladdin finally made its way to the legitimate stage, but for better and for worse it's the story Alan Menken wanted to tell, not quite the one you remember. The show itself may be a second-tier Disney musical, but the production is top notch, and must be seen to be believed.
Framed not as a fairy tale but as an elaborate 1930s-1940s style musical comedy- as per Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman's original concept for the piece- the Aladdin stage musical is light on plot but heavy on dance, schtick and old-school Hollywood charm. It tells of former street tough turned hero Aladdin (Clinton Greenspan), who is attempting to live up to his deceased mother's wishes by transitioning from a life of crime to respectable work as a street performer. After run-ins with protofeminist Princess Jasmine (Lissa deGuzman) and grand vizier Jafar (Jonathan Weir), a series of misadventures sends Aladdin into the Cave of Wonders, where he bonds with the Genie of the Lamp (a very funny, high energy Trevor Dion Nicholas). Both decide to work together to achieve their ultimate goal: freedom from an existence they find stifling and hopeless.
While the initial film was heavy on swashbuckling, chase sequences, fights, dashing escapes and adventure, the musical sensibly cuts back on these things (which work better on film in three dimensions, than the perspective-locked proscenium stage). Instead, it relies on extremely flashy dance sequences, badump-tss punchlines, and lots of nods to the Golden Age of film vaudeville. If you're counting along at home, Genie has been reconceived as a hybrid of Mantan Moreland and Cab Calloway, Jafar and Iago (Jay Paranada) are clearly riffing on Abbott and Costello, and Aladdin's three cronies (Zach Bencal, Philippe Arroyo and Jed Feder) are a throwback to The Ritz Brothers. Many of the musical numbers have been reconceived and rearranged around a swinging Cotton Club sound, eliminating some of the cries of cultural appropriation that the faux-Orientalisms and Arabicisms of the original score would have had today. Unfortunately, the ballads are still in the incredibly memorable, but incredibly late-Eighties sound of classic Menken-Ashman, so "A Whole New World" feels anachronistic against the rolling kick drums and brassy strut of nearly every other song in the show.
Aladdin is undeniably the Genie's show, and Morgantown local Trevor Dion Nicholas rips into the scenery with his metaphorical teeth every chance he gets- which is many, many chances in this show. Improvising with the audience like a nightclub comic, tap-dancing furiously and clearly breaking a sweat in every scene, Nicholas's energy and charisma, combined with a heavily reconceived vision of the character, keep him from ever falling in the shadow of the legendary Robin Williams's more chaotic interpretation of the character. As his master- maybe more like his sidekick- Clinton Greenspan brings a touch of young Tom Cruise charm (which Disney fans know was the original character's inspiration) to the street rat. His singing voice is light and airy, suiting the Menken balladeering style perfectly, but he truly shines as a dancer in the Bollywood-inspired finale sequence. Lissa deGuzman's Jasmine is underwritten by nature of the role, but deGuzman has a lovely voice and a strong stage presence; her fourth-wall breaking gag to the audience about "why can't a woman run the country?" got belly laughs and groans in equal measure, seemingly by design.
Perfect is the enemy of good, as the proverb goes, and Aladdin is certainly quite good. If it doesn't live up to the epic reputation of the film, if Jafar isn't as useful as comic relief as he was as a genuinely sinister presence, if Iago was more fun as a parrot than as a palace eunuch, if you miss the giant tiger and the tiny monkey- put all that aside. Let the huge brass section and the scantily-clad dancers entertain you for a throwback evening of mildly mindless entertainment, the new-old-fashioned way.