There is an inescapable nostalgia factor attached to Disney Theatrical Productions, and it was on full display at the Pantages in Los Angeles last night as the national tour of Aladdin opened to a very receptive crowd. For the most part, this stage adaptation of the 1992 film, which debuted on Broadway in 2014 and still runs there today, delivers exactly what you expect from it. The brightly colored, exuberant spectacle is designed to be perfectly family friendly while dropping in enough punny jokes to keep the adults in the audience amused. Any shortcomings are easily forgotten by the time you arrive home, surely still singing “A Whole New World” and “Friend Like Me” to yourself.
Aladdin tells the story of its titular character (Adam Jacobs), a scrappy young man who lives on the streets of the Middle-Eastern city of Agrabah, surviving by pulling off sloppy cons to steal food. Manipulated by Jafar (Jonathan Weir), the Sultan’s power-hungry Grand Vizier, into stealing a magic lamp from a cave, Aladdin finds himself master of a Genie (Michael James Scott), with three wishes at his disposal. Enchanted by a chance meeting with Princess Jasmine (Isabelle McCalla), a free spirit who resents the expectations and rules that come with being a royal, Aladdin uses his first wish to transform himself into a prince better suited to win her heart.
The story definitely feels outdated in terms of cultural sensitivity, but this cloud has hung over Aladdin as long as it has existed. As the Genie introduces the setting in the opening number, he makes a point of reminding the audience that Agrabah is a fictional city, which helps evade criticisms specific to any one Middle-Eastern culture. In 1993, some offensive lyrics in “Arabian Nights” were altered, and the anglicization of the main characters has long been a source of ire, despite the movie being the first Disney film to feature non-white protagonists. The original Broadway production disappointed some by not casting actors of Middle-Eastern heritage, and the upcoming live-action remake is currently under fire for darkening actors’ skin with makeup and adding a new white character.
The music (Alan Menken) is a combination of the beloved songs from the movie, a few that were cut from the movie and resurrected for the stage, and brand new material written for the stage (lyrics are by Tim Rice, Howard Ashman, and Howard Beguelin). As usual for a Disney musical, the newer material is less memorable than the classics, although there are a couple welcome additions. The costumes (Gregg Barnes) are gorgeous throughout, while the sets (Bob Crowley) are at first unimpressive and economical in scenes set in the Agrabah marketplace and palace. Once Aladdin arrives at the Cave of Wonders, however, that all changes. The audience applauded as the glitzy, flashy set, glimmering with gold from floor to ceiling, was revealed. This sets the scene for “Friend Like Me,” the show’s first pièce de résistance, which is spectacularly performed by Michael James Scott. The pop culture references are updated to include Dancing With the Stars jokes, and an “ain’t nobody got time for that” even works its way in.
The second big ticket number in the show is, of course, “A Whole New World,” which falls in the second act and is beautifully done through a combination of impressive wire work and smart lighting that masks said wires, creating a truly magical effect as Aladdin and Jasmine fly around stage on the magic carpet. With the exception of one perplexing moment when the moon in the sky is re-lit to depict the Earth, implying they have traveled all the way to outer space on their journey, the staging of this song delivers everything you could want from it. These spectacular moments are crucial because the expanded running time (two hours and 30 minutes versus the film’s 90) illuminates logic problems in the plot, which holds little to no water under scrutiny. The entire story relies on the overused and frustrating convention wherein a person undergoes some type of minor transformation, in this case literally just a new wardrobe, but suddenly none of the other characters recognize them. Aladdin spends the entire time essentially gaslighting Jasmine into believing he’s someone he’s not, which she quickly forgives in time for the tidy resolution.
What the show lacks in coherency of plot it covers for in charm, much of which is thanks to the charismatic lead performance of Adam Jacobs, who created this role on Broadway. His experience inhabiting the character shows—he can flash a smile and make you temporarily forget Aladdin’s flaws. Isabelle McCalla is a confident and lovely Jasmine, embodying the rebellious qualities that earned the character a place in the hearts of feminist Disney fans. One unfortunate but probably necessary change for the stage is the omission of animal sidekicks Rajah and Abu (Iago the parrot is replaced by a human character of the same name, played by Reggie De Leon). Instead, Aladdin and Jasmine each get a trio of sidekicks—for her, three attendants and confidants in the palace, for him, three fellow “street rats,” Babkak (Zach Bencal), Omar (Philippe Arroyo), and Kassim (Mike Longo), who prove a worthwhile addition in their entertaining act two number “High Adventure.” Babkak’s love of food also leads to some of the show’s more memorable lines that can only be described as “dad jokes.” For example, when someone suggests they “hum us” a tune, Babkak excitedly responds, “did somebody say hummus?” You may immediately feel guilty about it, but you will chuckle.
In the grand scheme of Disney stage adaptations, from the very very good (The Lion King) to the very very bad (The Little Mermaid), Aladdin falls solidly and respectably somewhere in the middle. It delivers reliable entertainment that should not disappoint fans of the movie, and Casey Nicholaw’s spirited choreography and direction deliver a couple of standout numbers well worth the price of admission.
Aladdin runs at the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood through March 31st. The running time is two hours and 30 minutes, including one intermission. Courtney Reed, who originated the role of Jasmine on Broadway, will return to the role from January 13th to February 18th (McCalla will perform the rest of the run). Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased here. You can enter a daily digital lottery to win $25 tickets here. For information about the Broadway production and future tour dates beyond Los Angeles, click here.
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