From the moment the curtain rises on three goofy guys “riding” puppet camels, you know where “Disney’s Aladdin: The New Stage Musical” is heading — straight into the fairy-tale land of old-fashioned song-and-dance and funny stage business. In Casey Nicholaw’s staging at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, this new adaptation of the 1992 Disney film emphasizes patter and pratfalls over scenery and spectacle. When it sticks to its low-tech, high-camp playbook, it is very, very entertaining. When it loses its nerve, it also briefly loses its way. But by the end, the show reaches its intended destination.
This “Aladdin” — a two-act legit adaptation targeted to regional, stock and amateur stagings rather than a megabudget Broadway incarnation — differs significantly from the movie, and wisely so. Why even try to re-create Robin Williams’ antics as the voice of the genie in the film? On stage, James Monroe Iglehart plays Genie as a fast-talking funk machine, more gritty and grounded than Williams’ shapeshifter but just as energetic. Not all Genie’s jokes hit their marks (some tossed-off references to Oprah and “American Idol” may not prove evergreen), but Iglehart’s soulful voice and hip-shaking shenanigans more than compensate.
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Also new here are three sidekicks for Aladdin: food-grubbing Babkak (Brian Gonzalez), mousy Omar (Andrew Keenan-Bolger) and bossy Kassim (Brandon O’Neill). Apparently these characters were created for the film but later cut, along with their songs, which turn out to be some of the best Alan Menken tunes of the evening. “High Adventure,” for instance, is a swashbuckling Act II show-stopper, packed with comic swordplay and slapstick, expertly performed.
Babkak, Omar and Kassim — the aforementioned camel-riders — set a light-hearted, self-referential tone for the proceedings. Kassim acts as a kind of genial emcee, talking the audience through the mechanics of the musical (“Someone’s gotta sing while they change the scenery”). And Omar and Babkak delight with a running gag involving puns on Middle Eastern foods.
More recognizable from the movie are Aladdin (Adam Jacobs), the street kid who falls in love with a princess (Courtney Reed), and Jafar (Jonathan Freeman), the villain who tries to keep them apart. Of the three, Reed has the blandest role (generic Disney “spunky princess”) and Jacobs the loftiest voice — so aerodynamic on “Proud of Your Boy” it practically needs its own runway.
That ballad, written for the film and later cut, is undeniably pretty, but emblematic of one of the problems the show’s creators need to address. “Disney’s Aladdin” has few truly earnest moments — so few that they feel out of place; they deflate next to the buoyant hijinks bracketing them. Either the transitions between the two need to be massaged or the show needs to go all-in with broad comedy and leave the tearjerking for another day.
Likewise, some of the scenes that shoot for big effects are big misses. The flying carpet — basically a fabric-covered platform that hauls captive actors up and down in front of a twinkly, night-sky backdrop — looks like a glorified car lift. So the signature song that should be the show’s climax (“A Whole New World”) falls flat. The answer might be to invest in some stage machinery that’s really impressive, or to ditch the apparatus and let Aladdin and his princess “fly” across the dance floor in each others’ arms.
Certainly the rest of “Disney’s Aladdin” argues for the latter. In this show, much is done with little. Smoke machines, shadowplay and flashing lights make simple stage magic. Nicholaw’s carousel of choreography animates every scene. Fresh, funny writing by book writer Chad Beguelin and lyricists Howard Ashman and Tim Rice (with additional lyrics contributed by Beguelin) prove that you can entertain without hydraulics, computer animation or pyrotechnics.
Musical numbers: “Arabian Nights,” “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim,” “One Jump Ahead,” “One Jump Ahead” (Reprise), “Proud of Your Boy,” “Arabian Nights” (Reprise 1), “Call Me a Princess,” “Why Me,” “A Million Miles Away,” “Arabian Nights” (Reprise 2), “Friend Like Me,” “Arabian Nights” (Reprise 3), “Act One Finale,” “Prince Ali,” “A Whole New World,” “High Adventure,” “Somebody’s Got Your Back,” “Wedding Suite,” “Prince Ali” (Reprise), “Finale Ultimo.”