Twenty-ish years ago, I sat in a dark movie theater in a Minneapolis suburb and witnessed something I never thought I would see: the rebirth of the Disney animated musical without Walt. Howard Ashman and Alan Menken brought their magic to the Disney studios for The Little Mermaid, followed by Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin (with the added genius of lyrics by Tim Rice, who stepped in to help Alan Menken complete the score after Howard Ashman passed away.)
It is no secret that Howard Ashman's expertise carried far beyond his lyrics to story structure and a belief that the animated musical was the film home for the Broadway musical. He was right -- first Beauty and the Beast and, most recently, The Little Mermaid, have played on Broadway to great success. Unlike B&B and Mermaid, Disney has no plans to take Aladdin to Broadway, but instead (according to Disney Theatrical Productions), is responding to the demand by schools and theaters around the country for a stage musical version.
Disney's Aladdin The New Stage Musical is playing right now at the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, to give it a tryout before it goes to MTI or distribution.
The 5th Avenue is an ornate, restored vaudeville theater that has sent to Broadway such shows as "Hairspray," "SHREK: The Musical," "The Wedding Singer," "Memphis," and, most recently, "Catch Me If You Can," among others, well-used to mounting new musicals.
I saw it Saturday night with my family. Disney is giving it the whole Broadway treatment from cast to production team. Casey Nicholoaw directed, Danny Troob did the excellent orchestrations. Glenn Kelly, whose wonderful musical arrangements made The Producers so memorable, did the delightful dance arrangements.
Until recently, the original songs were primarily known mainly only to Disney and Disney geeks (like me) who own Alan Menken's "The Music Behind the Magic" which contains demo tapes alongside final production recordings, to give a glimpse into the evolution of the animated musical. In bringing it to the stage, all but one of the original songs were used, along with those in the film. Additional songs were written by Alan Menken and lyricist Chad Beguelin, whose book manages to merge the two concepts into a cohesive story.
Not too long ago, we had seen a middle school production of "Aladdin Jr." that was the starting point for the full two-act version. Oh, what a difference a good book and a professional touch can make!
Gone is the awkward kid-in-a-bird costume Iago, replaced by an equally annoying little man (named Iago) as the foil for the thankfully untouched evil Jafar. Absent from both versions is Abu, Aladdin's annoying monkey friend. Gone, too, is the flying carpet as a character. Restored to the production are Aladdin's friends, Babkak, Omar and Kasim, who are also the storytellers. Jasmine is also given a trio of friends, making her isolation in the palace less creepy and more symbolic. The 4th wall is almost non-existent in this rendition of the story -- the storytellers sing directly to us, and, Hope-Crosby fashion, occasionally argue among themselves about how the story is being told. The script is packed with contemporary references, some too forced, and a few perhaps to topical (the Genie says, "Oprah may be gone, but I'm heere!"), but the audience immediately bought into it and loved it. After all, how many musicals have the audience scat singing, Cab Calloway-style, with one of the characters?
Overall, the production was delightful and entertaining. Of special note was the talented cast, comprised primarily of New York actors, with a few outstanding Seattle actors.
One of the main reasons we went to see it was because Jonathan Freeman, the voice of Jafar in the film, played Jafar. He was so good that I don't know if everyone in the audience realized just how amazing he was in the role. He and Don Darryl Rivera as Iago were perfectly in tune, chewing the scenery in a satisfying way that always managed to avoid becoming hammy. I think it is safe to say that with Jonathan Freeman, there would be no Aladdin on stage.
Adam Jacobs was a charming and appealing Aladdin, being constantly interesting in a part that has to share the stage with some pretty big characters. In his solo turn on "Proud of Your Boy" (a song mostly known for being sung by Clay Aitken), he commanded the stage and gave full justice to the song that was so important and autobiographical to Howard Ashman, while always telling the story. It is moments like those that remind us why we go to the theater.
Courtney Reed was deft, sassy and strong as Jasmine, although it just reinforces the reality that Aladdin is a man's show. She's a princess, but has only one costume change -- her wedding attire? Even when she dresses to annoy her suitors, she's wearing the same thing with a few accessories! She's a princess! Give her a costume change! She's the only woman in the show -- we won't get confused! In spite of the rampant mysogonism inherent to the story, she triumphs.
James Monroe Iglehart as the Genie was entertaining, charismatic, and every other word you can think of. He still had the impossible task of competing with Robin Williams, but took to heart the original concept of the Genie as the aforementioned Cab Calloway, and created enough of a difference that it didn't disappoint. He also made it clear that, without a good Genie, any production of Aladdin is going to fail.
As Babkak, Omar and Kasim, Brian Gonzales, Andrew Keenan-Bolger (my girls' favorite!) and Seattle actor Brandon O'Neill were absolutely marvelous. As both storytellers and Aladdin's best buddies, they are on stage almost the entire performance, and are high energy and entertaining without flagging.
Of special note among the Seattle actors was Nick DeSantis, who in addition to being a member of the ensemble played the role of the head guard, Razoul. All the ensemble was busy in multiple small roles, but every time I looked, practically, there he was in a different costume, dancing, acting and singing. He moved easily between each role, shifting his character to meet the moment.
What a pleasure to see a Broadway-level production. The play itself isn't perfect. If it were going to Broadway, there would be changes to the book, which could still use some work. Certainly extensive work was done on the original lyrics -- one insider says that the Disney people debated a long time over whether or not to change "it's barbaric, but, hey, it's home" (they didn't), and removed all references to Baghdad. (Get hold of a copy of The Music Behind the Magic and take a listen.) Still, it is a vast improvement over the rather weak book of "Aladdin, Jr." and if Disney changes its mind about mounting a Broadway production, it is almost there. Be certain of this -- once MTI makes it available for lease, productions of Aladdin will pop up all over.
Disney's Aladdin The New Stage Musical
Music by Alan Menken
Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice
Book and Additional Lyrics by Chad Beguelin
Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre through July 31, 2011