Making a Musical out of a Movie
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.