I doubt if anybody was expecting Aladdin, the Disney stage musical of the Disney film musical, to be more than just another knock-off. But just as we should be careful what we wish for, a principle that Aladdin’s Genie would certainly endorse, so we should be cautious as to what we despair of. This Aladdin turns out to be the best ever stage version of a movie. Just confining comparisons to the Disney stable: it shows up the theatrical Beauty and the Beast for the drearily uninspired Xerox that it was; and though it may not be as outlandishly imaginative as The Lion King, it has its own kind of inventiveness and is frankly more fun.
And it has, obviously, a much better score. Alan Menken’s music, and the lyrics of the late and much lamented Howard Ashman, have the kind of verve and wit that used to be taken for granted on Broadway and is now mostly a memory to be invoked for spoof purposes — meaning camp purposes — only. Aladdin redeems showbiz tradition by making fun with it, rather than of it: something that now may only be possible in a fantasy setting. Here the source material is doubly a fantasy: a cartoon derived from a fairy tale. The movie’s songs — One Jump Ahead, Friend Like Me and, best of all, Diamond in the Rough — come up fresh and sparkling. So does the scene-and-tone-setting Arabian Nights, to which Chad Beguelin, who wrote the show’s adroit book, has added some new lyrics worthy of the Ashman tradition, so neatly rhymed as to be, on a couple of occasions, laugh-out-loud funny: a rare accomplishment.
The show also has the good fortune of being directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, whose past credits (Book of Mormon, Spamalot and the Broadway version of The Drowsy Chaperone) have established him as the master of the comedy musical. I wouldn’t claim that his choreography represents the second coming of Jerome Robbins but it keeps the stage humming, notably in the opening marketplace number. This, among other things, is a mobile showcase for Gregg Barnes’ gorgeous costumes, which get only richer as the evening goes on; add these to Bob Crowley’s sets (his Cave of Wonders, with its flashes of green lightning, is especially wonderful) and the production could probably franchise a couple of stagings of Kismet, which might not be such a terrible idea.
Staging, lighting and design come triumphantly together when the hero takes his Princess for a breathtaking ride on a magic carpet with no visible means of support. I don’t often find myself applauding a special effect but this one is really special. Beautifully, stunningly done, it has the benevolent side effect of taking our minds off the accompanying song A Whole New World, the score’s one real dud with lyrics so dumb they can only have been supplied by Tim Rice after Ashman’s death.
For a Toronto audience the show must seem at times like a Ross Petty panto with more money. Indeed Jonathan Freeman’s villainous Jafar is, presumably by coincidence, a Petty soundalike, especially in his fortissimo sneer; his sidekick Iago (Don Darryl Rivera) also strongly resembles the assistant villain usually played in Petty shows by Eddie Glen, except that he cringes rather than chortles.
Adam Jacobs is an engaging Aladdin somewhat altered from the movie; here he’s a scamp trying to go straight even before he falls in love, owing to a promise he made his late mother (who in a British panto wouldn’t be late at all; she’d be called Widow Twankey and would be running a Chinese laudry, in Baghdad). Aladdin’s filial soul-searchings are explored in a song called Proud of the Boy, which is more touching and less sticky than you might expect. As for his beloved Princess Jasmine: the liberated heroine who was so refreshing in Beauty and the Beast had already become her own kind of stereotype by the time they filmed Aladdin: The presence of a charming flesh-and-blood actress (Courtney Reed) makes her less of a cartoon in more than one sense.
As her dad the Sultan, Clifton Davis gets as much as possible out of a role that could be called strictly straight man, except that he isn’t strict at all. Major, and very welcome, additional characters are three buddies of Aladdin’s (Brian Gonzales, Jonathan Schwartz, Brandon O’Neill — what multicultural names) who make their and the show’s first entrance on hobby camels (hobby horses with humps) and who stick around to provide exposition and, more importantly, commentary. They also rush to their friend’s rescue when he’s imprisoned, and you may have fun working out which of them approximates the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion.
However, when it comes to classical antecedents, you can’t beat James Monroe Iglehart’s Genie, who is part Ariel from The Tempest (he wants the liberty his master promised) and, of course, part Robin Williams. He has to provide a stage equivalent of what the animators and Williams’ voice created between them on film, and he does it superbly. Announcing himself in Friend Like Me, he has to cope with everything Nicholaw’s staging throws at him, which is everything; the number is deliriously extended. But being a corporeal presence, and an imposing one, he’s necessarily his own man, or whatever a genie is: a preeningly proud all-round entertainer, though slightly more impressive in singing than in dancing, extravagant in joy and, briefly and temporarily, in sorrow. This really is a legend, several legends actually, brought to life. And so is the whole show. What joy to encounter a big, splashy, funny musical that works.