- The Magazine
Not a whole new world, but rather an opulent remodel of the hit 1992 animated movie, Disney’s Aladdin (★★★½) works hard to bring magical fantasy to life onstage. And the ingenuity put forth in director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s touring production of his Tony-winning Broadway staging does appear to make magic carpets fly.
Entire rooms and wardrobes change colors in an instant, and characters materialize or dissipate in a fog. Disney clearly has spent a princely sum on the musical adaptation of the studio’s retelling of the age-old Middle Eastern folk tale. The show, in the midst of a seven-week run at the Kennedy Center, deploys impressive lighting and visual effects and lustrous costumes and sets to conjure the fairy-tale world of “street-rat” orphan Aladdin (Clinton Greenspan), and his ostensibly perilous adventures in the kingdom of Agrabah.
Peril might be the point of some of the action, but danger is not that powerfully evoked in Nicholaw’s light-as-a-feather staging. The action is paced well, with chases scrambling across rooftops, and swordfights laying waste to the busy marketplace, but suspense is faint or fleeting. Setbacks great and small are reversed with little pain or sacrifice, as the story rolls along hitting the beats prescribed by the beloved big-screen version of the orphan thief’s exploits.
Most anticipated among the film’s memorable moments are the spectacular, showpiece musical numbers composed by Alan Menken, with lyrics by both Tim Rice and the late, gay — and Baltimore-born — Howard Ashman. The show builds to the sheer, eye-popping too-muchness of Menken and Ashman’s “Friend Like Me,” set inside the glittering Cave of Wonders, and “Prince Ali,” a dazzling march into the palace throne room, by going very minimal with the action and atmosphere in between. Unfortunately, those moments in between can feel like filling time between the outsize song-and-dance setpieces.
Some of the additional songs written for the show by Menken and lyricist Chad Beguelin, who also wrote the book for the musical, definitely sound like filler. “A Million Miles Away,” checks off the box of a starry-eyed first-act duet that isn’t Menken and Rice’s Oscar-winning “A Whole New World,” but doesn’t add anything to the love story of Aladdin and Jasmine (Kaenaonalani Kekoa), headstrong princess of the land, that the pair doesn’t express in other tunes.
Aladdin takes a bigger swing at adding something new by giving two showcase numbers to Aladdin’s ride-or-die besties, Babkak (Zach Bencal), Omar (Ben Chavez), and Kassim (Colt Prattes), characters created for the musical. The threesome combined almost muster as much personality as the movie Aladdin’s monkey Abu, but still they come in handy on occasion. Bencal plays his perpetually famished Babkak with a dry humor that wisely cuts through the character’s buffoonery, while Prattes brings an appealing esprit to Kassim, particularly in the trio’s second-act swashbuckler “High Adventure.”
In that number, and in Aladdin’s “One Jump Ahead,” Nicholaw’s noticeably studly cast capture the excitement of high-octane stunt action, accompanied by the brilliant orchestra. As diverting as those scenes may be, though, they might as well have been dropped in from an old Douglas Fairbanks serial, since they don’t seem connected to this romance, or to Jasmine’s story of asserting her independence, or to the villainous machinations of Jonathan Weir’s evil Jafar and scheming lackey Iago (Reggie De Leon). The friendship between Aladdin and the Genie, portrayed by Major Attaway with audience-pleasing panache, also runs on its own, distinct track.
Attaway spent significant time essaying the role of Genie on Broadway, and it shows in the ease in which he inhabits the meme-quoting, catchphrase-spouting magic man. He also supplies the emotional depth to make the wheels of Genie and Aladdin’s friendship turn.
Similarly, Kekoa’s fiery Jasmine truly fuels the show’s romance. She’s a powerful heroine, whether demanding to know what’s wrong with a woman running the kingdom, or singing with the bright and clear pipes that epitomize a Disney princess. Jasmine proudly models femininity and strength and stubbornness and courage, and Kekoa’s performance naturally combines the disparate elements of her character. The show, on the other hand, seems cobbled together with market-tested calculation. Wishing for thrills and thrilling nostalgia, Disney’s Aladdin summons results both brilliant and just blandly entertaining.
Disney’s Aladdin runs through September 7, at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Tickets are $39 to $179. Call 202-467-4600, or visit www.kennedy-center.org.
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