Disney's live-action musical "Aladdin" debuts at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre.
When you wish upon a magic lamp, maybe you don’t get a musical primed for Broadway. But in the case of the 5th Avenue Theatre’s world premiere of Disney’s “Aladdin,” with the help of an A-list director-choreographer you might conjure a lively and tune-filled, if cornball and semi-clunky, show — one with clear flaws, but obvious appeal for the regional-theater family crowd.
Consider this “Aladdin 4.0” from those master recyclers at Disney. First they forged the 1992 hit animated movie “Aladdin.” Then came a condensed Disneyland theme-park version, and a “junior” adaptation suitable for schools. (Let’s not count the game versions.)
At two-plus hours, this larger-scale and reworked live “Aladdin” is plumped up with memorable tunes from the movie (“A Whole New World”), songs cut from the film, solid new numbers, added characters and enough harem pants, turbans, bare-midriff dancers and fake Arabian swords to outfit several sand-and-sabers flicks.
In tongue-in-cheek Arabian Nights-meets-the-Marx Brothers mode, director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw (hot off his “Book of Mormon” triumph), star Disney composer Alan Menken and author/co-lyricist Chad Beguelin have dusted off the original concept Menken and his late lyricist Howard Ashman devised for the film.
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Menken and Ashman had imagined a throwback to the jokey, song-laced 1940s Bob Hope and Bing Crosby comedies. But animal characters, special effects and a wildly riffing Robin Williams (as the voice of the Genie) shifted the concept.
Going back to Plan A, the current team gave street musician and reformed pickpocket Aladdin (the bland but hunky, vocally strong Adam Jacobs) a trio of wiseacre boy-band sidekicks/ narrators, whom we meet in the bouncy Menken-Ashman tune “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim.” They’re played by Brian Gonzales, Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Brandon O’Neill.
The movie’s kleptomaniac chimp character is gone. A nasty parrot servant is now a comical human factotum (Don Darryl Rivera). And the blue shape-shifting Genie has become a hyperactive showman (James Monroe Iglehart).
The busy, colorful “Arabian Nights” number sets the spoofy tone. It also demonstrates what a clever director can do with an engaging cast, some vibrantly hokey costuming (by Gregg Barnes), and catchy tunes, but with a relatively modest budget — far less than the price tags for Disney’s Broadway eye-dazzlers, “The Lion King” and “Aida.”
To evoke an Arabian bazaar, set designer Anna Louizos has crammed carts of peddlers’ wares and suggestions of two-level adobe buildings onto a stage packed with a twirling, folk-dancing chorus. (And don’t get me started on the cramped chase scenes.)
“Aladdin” is at its best when it stops trying to duplicate animated action sequences and magic carpets (now a wobbly, stationary affair, on a lift) and centers on attractive backdrops, sardonic antics (groanworthy tabbouleh puns and all) and some romantic schmaltz. The most magical effects — the twinkly lighting schemes by Natasha Katz — are ingeniously low-tech.
The young kids at opening night took to the show right away. But for this adult, it took a while to settle in. Act 1 pushed too hard for laughs. Example: Princess Jasmine (Courtney Reed), Aladdin’s spunky love interest, is introduced with the off-putting “Call Me a Princess,” a Menken-Ashman tune cut from the film, in which she fends off suitors by being screechingly obnoxious. (Reed’s much more appealing in her sweet duets with Jacobs, starting with a pretty new Menken-Beguelin ballad, “A Million Miles Away”).
Jonathan Freeman, fleshing out his voice film role as the court meanie Jafar, adds some stylish villainy with a plummy British accent. But along with his humorously malevolent cackles, he deserves more good gags.
Iglehart’s robust and fleet-footed turn is jarring — in part because he’s been given the absurd task of imitating Williams at warp speed. Try as he might, the Genie’s motor-mouth patter, studded with pop-culture references and Vegas-y schtick, sounds forced and is only partly comprehensible. It was a relief then, in the superior Act 2, when Iglehart got to duet more organically with Jacobs on a spiffy new buddy song, “Somebody’s Got Your Back.”
Burned by two expensive New York flops based on other animated movies (“Tarzan,” “The Little Mermaid”), Disney has tried to keep its expectations low for “Aladdin,” and maintain a small-is-beautiful ethic upfront.
That’s good, because the show needs work to create a truly separate theatrical identity. Meanwhile, Nicholaw and company give their all to keep it popping, and that’s a lot.
Misha Berson: email@example.com