This super-costly extravaganza doesn't do justice to the movie, or to the spirit of the late Howard Ashman.
The magic-carpet ride is magical. The Cave of Wonders is wonderful. And yes, you’ll hear the tunes you loved in the 1992 movie. But the notion that “Disney Aladdin” somehow resurrects the spirit of the late Howard Ashman, who had the original inspiration for the movie and contributed most of its clever lyrics, is a joke. Restoring a person’s work without respecting his artistic sensibility is no tribute at all.
If this super-costly Disney extravaganza doesn’t really represent Ashman’s artistic vision, whose vision does it reflect? Chad Beguelin (“Elf,” “The Wedding Singer”), who wrote the book and contributed new lyrics, obviously plays a significant role, as does Alan Menken, who scored the film and wrote new songs for the show. Even more so does helmer-choreographer Casey Nicholaw (“The Book of Mormon”), who stylistically turns the film’s romantic fairy-tale adventure into shtick comedy.
Bob Crowley, a six-time Tony winner (for Disney’s “Aida” and “Mary Poppins,” among others), is likely to pick up another one for imaginative sets that capture both the fun and the storybook wonder of the folk tale. For the eye-popping opening number, “Arabian Nights,” Crowley has designed a colorful marketplace in the kingdom of Agrabah that is visually anchored by revolving setpieces that telescope into whimsical new forms. He uses the same telescoping technique in the Cave of Wonders, where towers of treasure (cast in golden lights by Natasha Katz) await Aladdin.
Working from what looks like a million-plus budget, costumer Gregg Barnes (“Kinky Boots”) makes a dazzling first impression with vibrant colors and graceful silhouettes, and rich materials that are intricately embroidered and elaborately ornamented. But in the spirit of overkill that comes to define the entire production, the costumes become so heavily encrusted with bling, it’s a wonder anyone can move in them.
How thesps carry their costumes is a fair indicator of how they carry their roles. Adam Jacobs, who is young and cute enough to have played Simba the lion cub in “The Lion King,” is a personable performer with a pleasant enough voice to make an appealing Aladdin. He stiffens up in the princely garments of “Prince Ali of Ababwa,” the bogus monarch whose identity Aladdin buys with the first of his three precious wishes, but he unbends and puts his heart into “Proud of Your Boy.” And he’s quite charming in “A Whole New World,” the gorgeous number that takes Aladdin and Princess Jasmine (Courtney Reed, unkindly stuck in a ghastly belly-dancer schmatta) on their magic carpet ride.
The versatile James Monroe Iglehart not only pulls off his garish Genie costume; he practically walks off with the show in “Friend Like Me,” an extremely flashy production number that, at one preview performance, was a bona fide showstopper. When Robin Williams riffed on the same number in the movie, he fooled around with funny voices and celebrity sendups. Iglehart, a big man with a big man’s capacity for play, shows off Genie’s magical powers by turning to the Broadway musical-theater canon — starting with Disney’s own “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid,” and moving on to classic shows like “West Side Story, “A Chorus Line,” and even an “Arabic” interpretation of “Fiddler on the Roof.” The conceit doesn’t say much for choreographic originality, but, hey, it works. And Iglehart sells it.
Other changes to the original material are less successful, especially the contemporary updates to book and lyrics that replace the tone of fairy-tale innocence with show-queen vulgarity. And then there are the variations that are downright disastrous: It was a really bad idea to replace Iago, the sardonic parrot familiar of the evil vizier, Jafar (Jonathan Freeman, as impressive as he was in the film), with an annoying human henchman played by an annoying actor. A worse idea was replacing Abu, Aladdin’s rascal monkey friend, with three of the hero’s dumber-than-dirt slacker pals. As for the cheap jokes sprinkled throughout the book, the most unspeakable one comes in the prologue, when Genie produces a tacky miniature of the Statue of Liberty and excuses himself for “a little pre-show shopping.”
Oh, you don’t mean to say that there might be a profit motive in all this?