Review: Disney hits magic again with 'Aladdin'

Updated at: 03/21/2014 6:26 AM
MARK KENNEDY

(AP) NEW YORK - NEW YORK (AP) — The Genie in the big new Broadway musical "Aladdin" opens the show with a bang, sets up the story and then — poof — he's gone. "Try not to miss me too much!" he says, tauntingly, as he leaves.

The trouble is, it's hard not to. James Monroe Iglehart is just so magically delicious as the guy in the lamp that the show sometimes feels like its holding its breath until he reappears.

That's not a knock on this perfectly lovely adaptation of the 1992 movie that opened Thursday at the New Amsterdam Theatre with a score that's already won an Oscar. It's just that Iglehart is on a different planet.

It's spritely directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, well sung by a huge 35-person cast wearing an alarming number of harem pants, and hits that sweet spot Disney Theatrical Productions do so well, a saccharine fairy tale for the kids cut by some sly, vinegary quips for their parents.

The story by Chad Beguelin hews close to the film. A street urchin finds a genie in a lamp and hopes to woo a princess while staying true to his values and away from palace intrigue. Or, as Beguelin acknowledges: "It's the plot that you knew/with a small twist or two/but the changes we made were slight."

Full credit to Beguelin for gently mocking musical theater throughout, as when the Genie comments on a stage surrounded by high-energy dancers: "Even our poor people look fabulous! And everybody has a minor in dance!"

The key Alan Menken songs from the film — including "Friend Like Me," ''Prince Ali" and "A Whole New World" — are back, as well as songs dropped along the way — "High Adventure" and "Proud of Your Boy" — that get well-deserved rebirths.

New songs include the nice "Diamond in the Rough" and "A Million Miles Away," which sounds and functions a little too much like "Santa Fe" from nearby Menken show "Newsies." The lyricists are the late Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Beguelin.

Adam Jacobs stars as a sweet, hunky Aladdin — or "Al" as he's called — and Courtney Reed is his stunning-looking Jasmine, in a little need of some theatrical seasoning but with grooming seemingly straight off Bravo's "Shahs of Sunset." A welcome bit of casting is having Jonathan Freeman return as Jafar, the same role he voiced in the animated film. He is simply delicious, relishing his evilhood.

One of the biggest obstacles into turning this property into a stage musical has been the blue elephant in the room, the Genie. How can you possibly have a real actor play the shape-shifting, manic talking spirit that Robin Williams so wonderfully portrayed on film?

You apparently hire Iglehart, a cartwheeling, high kicking big man who can sing and goof. His extended scene in a cave prompts some theatergoers to give him a standing ovation — and the show's not even half over.

That moment is a wonder to behold as Iglehart performs "Friend Like Me" during a dozen or so skits — game show host, magician and then, hysterically, does a medley of other Disney hits including "Beauty and the Beast" and "Under the Sea." Disney badly needed a friend like this.

Other smart touches include Don Darryl Rivera stepping in for the parrot Iago as Jafar's wisecracking aide, and three thieves — Brian Gonzales, Brandon O'Neill and Jonathan Schwartz — as Aladdin's pals and comic relief. ("I feel awful," one says. Replies another: "Falafel? Did somebody say falafel?") In comparison to the zany sidekicks, the lovers are kind of milquetoast.

Bob Crowley delivers on another dazzling Disney design, this time a whimsical set of movable pieces that echo Islamic geometric designs and Middle Eastern marketplaces. He does a thrilling Cave of Wonders, and there's a flying carpet that moves nicely in front of a starry night sky, though the princess seemed a little freaked out.

Director Nicholaw juggles all of this with supreme skill, perfectly pacing the romantic with the comedic and the dancing, which leans heavily on traditional belly dancing and "Walk Like an Egyptian" moves. But for all his skill, he must have rubbed his own magic lamp to get this Genie.

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Online: http://www.aladdinthemusical.com

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

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