Before the curtain rose on Aladdin’s opening night, 5th Avenue artistic director David Armstrong reminded the packed house that the theatre has developed 11 new musicals in 10 seasons — five of which have gone on to premiere on Broadway and two of which have snagged the Tony for “Best Musical.” With that batting record, one expects a little innovation from this team.
Of course, to be fair, one doesn’t go to a staged adaptation of a Disney musical expecting profound self-discovery or political insight. One might, however, go to witness the workings of a little “fairy dust” — which the 5th has certainly shown it’s capable of summoning in the past. Unfortunately, burdened with self-effacing humor, lazy staging, and beaded bikini tops, this Aladdin doesn’t have enough magic to pull off a card trick.
Let’s recap. The animated movie "Aladdin" is (very) loosely based on a Middle Eastern fairy tale about a peasant whose life is changed by the discovery of a magic lamp. Without getting hung up on the feminist’s quandary surrounding Princess Jasmine’s exposed midriff, Disney’s version is ultimately about three characters searching for freedom: Aladdin seeks to shrug off the chains of poverty; Jasmine craves a better fate than that of a powerless woman; and Genie wants to break free of the enslavement of that tarnished lamp.
After a few lessons in honesty and friendship — and shenanigans involving an anthropomorphized magic carpet — the three heroes see their wishes granted. Cue songs from Disney’s musical dream team (Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice) and you have a story that can inspire any American kid (including this one) to playfully imagine what his or her own self-determined destiny might look like.
The story has some potential to suggest relevant and poignant connections with our contemporary moment. If not between the freedom Aladdin yearns for and that which is sought among the revolutions playing out in the Middle East, then at least between the wishes of children and the crumbling grounds for hope in our confused world.
This musical’s creators seem to think us simple theatre folk too nearsighted for such leaps of the imagination. Instead of far world fantasy, "Aladdin" gives us canned ham, cut off at the legs by a cynical, post-reality-TV world view that some people might call a sense of humor, but that I would call a sense of self that is too cool for the musical form.
Seen through a pair of backward binoculars, the big musical numbers could seem impressive. But from where I was sitting, costume designs are simply ripped straight from the original animation cells (with little thought for real human proportions), right down to Aladdin’s bare chest.
The set can be forgiven, since this is a low-budget test flight praying for permission to land on Broadway. But the movements between the set pieces leave a little too much to the imagination. Rather than immerse us in a sensual Persian marketplace or mysterious lair of an evil sorcerer, Aladdin takes us through a few chambers of a balmy Arabian Club Met, where the United Colors of Benetton Dancers do a few clumsy belly dancing swirls in silky clothes and then breathe heavily while play acting in between some rolling carts draped in laundry and antiquated miscellany (that’s stage-designer shorthand for “ethnic setting”).
Dance numbers are a weird mish-mash of Arabic dance, imitation Jerome Robbins, the Marx brothers, and America’s Best Dance Crew, which might actually be cool if executed well. But the ensemble looked simply clumsy. When it’s time to sing the signature number, “A Whole New World,” Adam Jacobs (Aladdin) and Courtney Reed (Jasmine) are inexplicably hoisted up by a mechanic’s lift and held hostage through the duration of the song. Balanced awkwardly on a mattress posing as a magic carpet, the performers have nothing to do but stare in each other’s eyes and pray they don’t knock each other off the platform.
Sadly, in more ways than one, this production offers the antithesis of a whole new world. It keeps us grounded safely in our American surroundings, right down to the pair of Tom’s slapped on one of the principal’s feet. Between choreography that references Dancing with the Stars and Let’s Make a Deal, and a few lame Middle Eastern food jokes, the language of this production doesn’t actually even ask us to leave our living rooms. Worse, our living rooms as they were six or ten or twenty years ago. Even the pop song phrases, which punctuate the Genie’s jokes with irritating frequency seem out of touch. Celine Dion? Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle”? Really?
As for the good stuff: James Monroe Iglehart (Genie), bless his heart, gives a dumbfounding athletic performance — so much so that anyone standing next to him appears asleep. I did enjoy the intermittent moments of shadow-puppet-style animation, projected at key segues in the plot to help fill in the camel caravans trekking through the desert, or the mysterious tiger-mouthed temple rising out of the sand. (But in the world where I live, that being the world where Kara Walker and even Beyonce’s team have already gone before, this too felt like another half-baked flourish.)
Also promising were the three narrators played by Brian Gonzales, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, and Brandon O’Neill (Babkak, Omar, and Kassim), who live in the story as Aladdin’s band mates. Probably the best singers on stage, these three wise men are tasked with bringing the gifts of comic relief to the airless mechanics of the fairy tale structure. And they do it well, punching below the belt with all the emasculating virgin/fat-boy humor those loveable boys of The Hangover or Entourage have taught us to expect from any man on screen who is under 40 or doesn’t look like Cary Grant.
Most enjoyable was the narrators’ big number “High Adventure” (written for, but cut from the original film), where the guys rush the Sultan’s palace to rescue Aladdin, sword-fighting the whole way. But in spite of their undeniable chemistry, their constant self-referential jokes claw at the construct of the musical until every move in the production becomes a punch line in and of itself (“They’re playing music while we’re fighting,” goes one particularly funny lyric). The narrators explain what a “split scene” is, admit that their role is just a device, and even refer to a program at one point to see what scene is next.
It’s too much, frankly. When "Aladdin" is not trucking along, recounting the film as close to story board as possible, the musical trashes itself as an art form so much that there’s not much ground left to stand on when it’s time for everyone to get into V-formation and sing the finale. With all the jocular musical hating, I half-expected to see, in lieu of a kiss, Jasmine get a swift slap on the rear followed by a group keg stand.
It’s hard to tell if it’s the influence of Trey Parker that director Casey Nicholow ("Book of Mormon") attempted to bring to the table, or the zeitgeist itself. But instead of coming across as enlightened or unencumbered by silly old forms, "Aladdin" seems confused and embarrassed. “Don’t worry — we don’t actually believe what we’re singing!” they say every few minutes or so, right before they spread their arms and deliver a classic jumping heel click while smiling with their mouths open.
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