BWW Reviews: ALADDIN at the 5th Avenue Theatre - Very Disney Park
Take a much beloved Disney hit animated musical written by the incomparable Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice and turn it into a big flashy Broadway musical directed by recent Tony award winner Casey Nicholaw fresh off "The Book of Mormon". Sounds like a no brainer, right? What can go wrong? Well, plenty as is evidenced by the 5th Avenue Theatre's most recent pre-Broadway tryout, "Aladdin" which more resembles a Disney park show than a legit stage musical.
I'll dispense with rehashing what the story's about since we all know it but I will say that some elements have changed. We talk more about Aladdin's Mother who recently died and we've lost the monkey Abu and any characterization that would have come from the magic carpet. Plus they've added back in Aladdin's street buddies Omar, Babkak and Kassim (Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Brian Gonzales and Brandon O'Neill) who serve as supporting characters but also as narrators of the story (but more on that later). And of course new songs have been added into the show, some that were cut from the original movie and some by book writer Chad Beguelin. And therein lies my biggest problems, the new songs and the book.
Beguelin seems to have Disney-fied a Disney movie. Aladdin (Adam Jacobs) is a watered down version of his former self. He no longer has that rough and tumble bad boy feel of his predecessor. He's even given up stealing to survive to become a street musician. Yes, the added in songs are a nice addition but really only the ones added in from the original. I was thrilled to see "Proud of Your Boy" as well as "Call Me a Princess" back but the only new song that worked for me was "Somebody's Got Your Back" and now for the life of me I cannot remember how it goes.
The performances are good but lacked definition. Jacobs as Aladdin is handsome and charming with a great voice but lacked an emotional depth especially when singing about his Mother. The trio of narrators (Keenan-Bolger, Gonzales and O'Neill) is fun and likable but if they were to be integral to the story they needed more to do. And for some reason Beguelin insisted on having them break the fourth wall and comment on the show they were in which repeatedly took me out of the story. At the end there was even a lyric that practically apologized for the alterations to the story. And really the only character who should be breaking the fourth wall is Genie (James Monroe Iglehart) who does and is funny, energetic and raucous but had a decided lack of magic (especially for a Disney show). Case in point, during his "Friend Like Me" number one of the repeated lyrics is "Can your friend do this?" Dance and sing with nothing "magical" happening? Yes, he can. Courtney Reed as the lovely Jasmine had some of the best commitment to her character I saw; specifically in her aforementioned "Princess" number but then seemed to fall into the same quagmire of lackluster as the rest. And Jonathan Freeman as the villainous Jafar (reprising his role from the original movie version) and the toadying Iago (Don Darryl Rivera) are deliciously bad but lacked much to do and lost a lot of the menace the characters once had.
The staging was nice enough but seemed chaotic at times and the choreography (both by director Nicholaw) seemed entirely too sanitized and precise to be in a wild Arabian city. Remember, Agrabah, not 42nd Street. Costumes by Gregg Barnes were pulled right from the movie although at times seemed a little too flowy and unwieldy for the actors. And finally lighting designer Natasha Katz included some interesting (if not always well executed) shadow puppetry to augment the story. I saw this done in the recent "Scottsboro Boys" on Broadway and done much better. At times here it just seemed sloppy and gratuitous. And I should mention the "Magic Carpet" ride effect which was just ... well ... embarrassing. It went up, and then it went down.
So, wonderful source material from a team that included one of musical theater's greatest losses after his passing, Howard Ashman. It should have wowed but didn't. But they may need to find a Genie of their own to pull this one out. Like I said, it was like a Disney park show except I've seen the Disney park show of "Aladdin" and the park show was better.
"Aladdin" plays at the 5th Avenue Theatre through July 31st. For tickets or information contact the 5th Avenue box office at 206-625-1900 or visit them online at www.5thavenue.org.
Photo credit: Chris Bennion