Reanimating Aladdin

Making a Musical out of a Movie

Reanimating Aladdin

Mark Kitaoka

ALADDIN A touching story about what happens when a boy rubs his lamp.

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The 5th Avenue Theatre's world-premiere musical Aladdin is every bit as cartoonish as the 1992 Disney animation from which it's adapted. Unfortunately, it's even flatter than the two-dimensional medium it mimics, a somewhat entertaining yet unfinished production that's not quite ready for Broadway.

The movie Aladdin was essentially a musical to begin with, so you'd think it would be easier to adapt for the stage than past 5th Avenue pre-Broadway material such as Hairspray and The Wedding Singer. Featuring a catchy, campy, and occasionally soaring score by Alan Menken (Little Shop of Horrors and a kajillion Disney hits) and lyrics by the equally accomplished Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, Aladdin would seem like obvious Broadway material for the avid content-­recyclers at Disney Reimagineering.

But the source material presents challenges that the book and additional lyrics by Chad Beguelin (The Wedding Singer, ELF: The Musical) don't quite overcome—not the least of which being that the star of the movie Aladdin wasn't the bland title character himself, but rather the antics of Robin Williams in his oversize portrayal of Genie. Williams's performance was so dominating—he didn't just steal scenes, he stole the entire film—that the movie's creators rewrote the script to feature his character. New songs were written, others were cut, and an otherwise sweet retelling of The Thousand and One Nights was transformed into wholly entertaining, chaotic slapstick comedy.

Beguelin, director Casey Nicholaw (The Book of Mormon), and actor James Monroe Iglehart (Memphis) strike an uneasy compromise in addressing the I'm-not-­Robin-Williams dilemma, imbuing Genie with a less Williamsesque, more ethnically black shtick, while attempting to retain much of the spirit of the original character. Nobody expects Williams to walk out onstage, and Iglehart's game portrayal is a crowd pleaser.

But Williams's Genie was animated in both senses of the word, and Disney's animators brilliantly accentuated Williams's frenetic delivery by illustrating rapid-fire punch lines that might have missed their target had they fallen solely on the ear, a technique that falls far outside the realm of stagecraft. This puts Iglehart at a huge disadvantage, particularly in Genie's songs. Without their visual cues, otherwise clever lyrics too often fall flat or are unintelligible. There's nothing particularly complex about the music, but fast-paced tunes like "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali" are nearly impossible to sing.

The lyrics were written toward the peculiar strengths of film, particularly those songs by Ashman, who had already honed his skills on the Disney-reviving animated hits The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast (and who died following complications from AIDS during Aladdin's preproduction in 1991). On film, "Prince Ali" is a spectacle, with 75 camels, 53 peacocks, 60 elephants, and a menagerie of other exotic animals. Onstage, the lyrics just don't make much sense—when you can understand them.

A number of songs cut from the movie—songs presumably cut for a reason—have been reconstituted, but rather than moving the plot along, Beguelin is forced to make detours to accommodate them. The result is a show that too often jumps from song to song with little dialogue, feeling more like a musical revue than a book musical. And while the stage production's vaudevillian approach may be true to the spirit of the original, the pop-culture allusions (Mesopotamia's Got Talent) and fourth-wall-breaking self-references come off as lazy and do nothing to solidify an already incoherent story line.

Still, the Friday-night audience loved it, giving the generally capable cast a standing ovation. Jonathan Freeman, who voiced the villain Jafar in the movie, makes the most of what little material he's given, while Cornish-trained Don Darryl Rivera engagingly translates his sidekick Iago into non-parrot form. Cramped staging aside (chase scenes? Really?), Aladdin is at its best during the ensemble musical numbers which, backed by an 18-piece orchestra, occasionally rise to the level of exhilarating, despite the slightly sub-Broadway sets and staging.

In the end, Aladdin suffers more from expectation than anything else—it just isn't as good as the movie-musical it's based on, and it doesn't rise to Broadway standards. But scaled down to regional children's theater and marketed to that circuit, Disney might just have another hit on its hands. recommended


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Seattle audiences will give a standing ovation to anything that moves.
Posted by Mike in Olympia on July 27, 2011 at 4:08 PM · Report this
DC audiences stand for everything too. I basically refuse to succumb to the standing ovations that come at the end of every performance. And I'm an opera singer.
Posted by clearlyhere on July 27, 2011 at 6:21 PM · Report this
Good review: my one qualm. This show wasn't on Broadway, so why us it trying to rise to Broadway standards exactly? Also, how was the costume? The set? The band?
Posted by EmilySavesTheDay on July 27, 2011 at 8:24 PM · Report this
My review:
I saw Aladdin last week and I loved it. I thought that what this show has that some Broadway musicals seem to be lacking is heart and trust. Instead of pulling out all the "big stops" and telling a story through special effects, set, and lighting tricks, the actors used movement and their voices. It was really refreshing. I thought all the actors pulled their own weight and no one seemed to be lacking. I liked the genie's choice of playing up pop culture references instead of copying Robin Williams. Three of Aladdin's buddies functioned as narrators to move the plot along and make jokes about food. I usually looked forward to their appearances, but didn't always like them breaking the fourth wall.
I really loved hearing fleshed out live versions of the old Aladdin songs from the movie and found myself lipsynching along. I was always a little disappointed when cast members would sing songs that weren't from the movie and that I didn't know. Some new songs were great, like Call Me A Princess, and others, like the song Aladdin sang about his mother, were less so.
Although I loved seeing this bare bones production, the flying carpet needs to actually fly. Right now, it's on a pole that you can see and doesn't really move. That is the time to pull out the big stops and wow the audience. It would be super cool if it could go over the audience some how.
The last critique that I have is that the director might want to think about how his show depicts Arab culture. It feels a bit hokey.
Posted by frizzmonster on July 27, 2011 at 10:51 PM · Report this
i always thought shows at the 5th avenue should be considered as good as broadway.... is this incorrect? also- whats so wrong with audiences giving standing os?
Posted by meg213 on July 27, 2011 at 11:31 PM · Report this
TheOldProfessor 6
Wasn't Hairspray always a musical?

The "problem" with generic standing o's is that they're supposed to be reserved for the most-special of all performances, a way for an audience to "go to 11" with its appreciation.

Everyone just stands up for everything, though, because they like standing up. It's just something they know how to do, so they do it.

Though it's supposed to reward the show, it's actually a form of narcissism. It's the audience telling themselves they're awesome, since they've had the good sense to have seen a masterpiece.

It's like cheering for the animated hydroplanes at the Mariners games, really.

And, like with that Simpsons workshop they just reviewed, this is just another recycled piece of garbage. It might as well be the Battleship movie.

Posted by TheOldProfessor on July 28, 2011 at 3:03 AM · Report this
5. LORT audiences in Seattle give standing ovations at the end of damn near every mainstage show. It illustrates that our theatre community's cultural elite are a bunch of rubes that acts like every mainstage show, no matter how good or bad it actually was, is the greatest thing they've ever seen.
Posted by Gomez on July 28, 2011 at 8:12 AM · Report this
Tracy 8
"I think 'Seattle,' in Duwamish, means 'white people applauding'." -Sherman Alexie (I fear the proper punctuation of this has eluded me this morning. Working my evening shift 3 nights in a row on top of my regular job is taking its toll this week). In any case, this was Alexie's comment at the NPR Town Hall event that KUOW just re-aired this morning. Found it apropos of the above comments.

It is pretty ridiculous that Seattle audiences almost always give standing ovations. It means that it loses its meaning/specialness. Ah well. (I'm more annoyed at the folks who start running for the exits before the curtain's not a movie theatre, folks. Those are real people, and they can SEE YOU!!
Posted by Tracy on July 28, 2011 at 11:27 AM · Report this
I agree with most of your critique. The show needs a bit of work before (if) it goes to Broadway.

The chase scenes were a bit clunky, and the timing was just a bit off so you'd have actors pausing in their chase to wait for the scenery to catch up with them. Also, some of the effects need to be tweaked with a view for the whole house. I had pretty bad seats way up in the balcony, so when Aladdin "jumps" over the edge of the Princess's balcony, everyone in my section saw him just crouching on the carpet. Several of the other effects were ruined because the Director or Set Designed didn't consider that many people in the audience will be looking down onto the stage.

The genie was enjoyable, even the pop culture bits, but there were frequently times when he got going too quickly for himself and tripped over the lines or turned them to mush.

I actually enjoyed the trio of narrators, it felt vaudevillian, and helped distinguish the show from the movie, as did the use of shadow puppets and lighting effects on the curtain.

The one scene that was a true disappointment when the end with Jafar possessing the genie... how each of his wishes were simply answered "Jafar, you are now..." and maybe a light cue. I get that they were trying to show that the genie had no desire to do what he was doing, but it didn't feel right, and no one on stage reacted properly to the scene... all in all, that bit just didn't work.
Posted by Queerly Yours on July 28, 2011 at 3:31 PM · Report this

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