by Cory Conley · March 30, 2014
Playwrights on New Plays #60: Cory Conley looks at Aladdin at the New Amsterdam Theatre Complaining about the next generation is a practice as old as time, so allow me to break the trend here: I'm excited to one day meet the kids who were raised on Aladdin the musical.
Well, excited and a little jealous. After all, the Disney musical of my own childhood was their first Broadway venture, Beauty and the Beast, and while the story of Belle and the enchanted castle had lovely music and plenty of charm, it was little more than an expensive carbon copy of the movie. (Julie Taymor's re-imagined Lion King did not open until my teenage years.)
Aladdin would seem to face nearly insurmountable challenges in its trip to the stage. For one thing, the movie featured key sidekicks in the form of a parrot, a monkey, and a tiger--- none of them creatures commonly found at Equity Principal Auditions in New York. Also, there's a magic carpet that flies through the air at whim. And then there's the biggest obstacle of all: without the hilarious performance by Robin Williams, who voiced the Genie in the lamp, Aladdin would seem to be just a familiar princess-meets-pauper story, full of tedious mechanics and a predictable ending.
Enter Casey Nicholaw and Chad Beguelin. Nicholaw is the director and choreographer behind such shows as The Book of Mormon and The Drowsy Chaperone, while the book writer and lyricist Beguelin is responsible for The Wedding Singer musical. These two accomplished artists have brought a big dose of theatrical panache, combined with a grown-up wit, to the stage of the New Amsterdam theater, and in doing so, they've more than met each of the challenges. The result is a gleaming theatrical product that's not only entertaining, but reveals quite a bit about the ever-evolving state of childhood in this age of irony.
It begins with the Genie, here played in a dazzling performance by James Monroe Iglehart. He's the master of ceremonies for the evening, introducing us to the fictional kingdom of Agrabah and its inhabitants in the opening number "Arabian Nights." Later on, he stops the show with "Friend Like Me," a glitzy production number with an arsenal of tricks up its sleeve that includes musical homages to Disney's past. Remarkably, this Genie's dialogue includes very little from the Williams performance, but generates plenty of heat on its own thanks to Iglehart.
Even when the Genie's offstage, though, Aladdin sparkles with sass and verve. Aladdin's monkey has been replaced by a trio of Stooge-like sidekicks, while the villain Jafar's parrot, Iago, is given delicious human form by Don Darryl Rivera. (Jafar himself is played delightfully by Jonathan Freeman, reprising his role from the movie.) Beguelin's lyrics are an ample addition to the original ones provided by Howard Ashman. (The music is by Alan Menken.) There's lots of meta-commentary and one-liners about the absurdity of the situations, and the show is as much a loving send-up of musical comedies as it is an actual musical comedy.
The attractive leads--- Adam Jacobs as Aladdin, and Courtney Reed as Princess Jasmine--- have plenty of talent and vocal power, but they're almost beside the point. (Though the magic carpet ride is impressive, the show's signature song "A Whole New World" is downplayed to the point of being instantly forgettable.) This is a Disney cartoon told for a generation that requires a bit more than an earnest adventure with sincere love ballads. Maybe it means we're headed for a future of snarky, ironic people who feel the need to provide commentary on every moment of their lives. (Facebook, of course, tells me we've already arrived there.) But if it means that sitting through a Disney musical can be this much fun, I won't mind at all.