Disney’s newest classic animated film to be reimagined into a Broadway show, after the tremendous success of Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Tarzan, and The Little Mermaid, is Aladdin. It debuted at New York’s New Amsterdam Theatre in the spring of 2014.
I was incredibly lucky to be able to attend the Valentines Day show on my recent trip to New York. I have seen many shows, on Broadway and elsewhere, and I have to say that aside from a few complaints (two of which were extremely minor), this was my favorite. The production value was unbelievable, even for the sort of fare we’ve come to expect from a Disney production. The sets, the costumes, the lights—everything was bigger and better than before. And while this isn’t necessarily an indication of greatness in the real world, it sure the hell is on Broadway.
The show opens with James Monroe Igelhart, as the narrator, introducing us to Agrabah via “Arabian Nights.” This is a powerhouse piece that gives a whiff of what’s to come, in addition to subtly reminding the audience that this is a reimagining of the animated film, not a direct translation. The energy from the cast was palpable in the theater and infectious, too. The entire company appears in the number and after such a strong opening, I was concerned that the energy would not be sustainable.
Having been given a very glitzy tour of the fictional city, we are greeted by the next (expected) number, “One Jump,” the introduction to Aladdin (played by a very convincing Adam Jacobs.) This is the point that the first major difference from the film comes into play: Aladdin isn’t accompanied by monkey sidekick Abu, but instead a trio of buddy-thieves, Babkak, Omar, and Kassim. What’s exciting about this is that these characters were intended to appear in the film and were swapped with Abu to keep the storyline clean and simple. Several songs were abandoned along with the characters, and the Broadway show was the perfect hallowed ground for show-tune necromancy.
After “One Jump” and “One Jump (Revised),” we get to hear the first of the songs cut from the film, “Proud of Your Boy.” This song made it far enough into the movie that it was studio recorded but cut at the last minute. You can find the original version if you dig a bit. This is a sweet, slow song that gives Aladdin a bit more depth. It’s particularly helpful in this version as his character is a bit more cocky and smarmy than his animated counterpart. “Proud of Your Boy” paints a picture of a guy who wears his confidence and sarcasm as psychological armor. Broadway!Aladdin still feels a bit flat, but he’s likable enough thanks to Jacobs.
We are introduced to Princess Jasmine (Courtney Reed) through an entirely new song, “These Palace Walls.” The princess vents musically about her sheltered life and fate of a political marriage to her personal attendants, who end up encouraging her to make an escape. From a technical standpoint, “These Palace Walls” is an insanely difficult piece to preform, and Reed nails it. But while she has powerhouse vocals, my biggest problem with the entire show was her casting. First of all, all of the female members in the ensemble were black women. Jasmine, from the seats, looked very very white.
Princess Jasmine was and still is the most important Disney princess in my opinion, and I feel confident in my belief that I am not alone in that regard. What made her so special is that she was different than any other before her. She was strong willed, she stood up for herself and her beliefs, and she was far from a damsel in distress. But most relevantly, in Aladdin, Disney finally showcased a princess who wasn’t snowy skinned. Jasmine gave so many children an identity among the established “royalty,” a collective fantasy that had already been shared by kids around the world . . . except the ones with more than an iota of melanin. Not only was Jasmine a beacon in a place that hadn’t been lit before, she was also an avatar for girls who had no interest in waiting around for romance to make her complete and who wondered what what life was like outside of their own tiny bubble.
I can’t think of another character who calls for a nonwhite actor to play them more loudly. But while Reed is herself a person of color, she had by far the lightest skin of all the women, and with the stage lights, she looked blindingly pale. This was accented, of course, by the darker tones of all the other women in the production. Women who were incredible dancers and singers. Going back to my point about the technical difficulty of her solo piece, there is the possibility that out of all the women who showed up to audition, she sang it the best. But I very much doubt it. And even if Reed out-sang the competition, I feel that a darker-skinned woman should have been selected anyway, due to the immensely important cultural significance of the character. And we need this now, more than ever.
This left me with a sour taste throughout the rest of the performance, but the casting was not her fault and her performances were solid.
Jasmine runs away and finds herself in the marketplace just in time to see Aladdin and crew perform “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim” in an attempt to “honest money.” This is a fun, upbeat piece reminiscent of a barbershop tune that serves as a vehicle for Aladdin and Jasmine to meet for the first time as well as explain the bond between the four friends. After the fiscal failure of the performance and a close encounter with an angry guard, Aladdin takes Jasmine to his pad and they talk about being trapped in their opposing lives, which leads into another song not included in the film, “A Million Miles Away.” In my opinion, this was the weakest of the songs. It had an eighties-ballad feel to it and it seemed felt familiar and dated.
The “Sometimes, you feel so . . . trapped” almost-kiss scene happens, which leads to the all-important line, “Do you trust me?” You know the rest! The story continues until another new song, sung by Jafar (Jonathan Freeman) and Iago (Don Darryl Rivera). “Diamond in the Rough” introduces the Cave of Wonders and the information that only Aladdin will be able to access it. If the name Jonathan Freeman sounds familiar to you, it’s because the actor playing Broadway!Jafar is the same actor who voiced Jafar in the animated film. A voice actor following their character to the stage is a first, and it was very cool to see!
With a bit of trickery, Jafar finds Aladdin and convinces him to accompany them to the Cave of Wonders (and go in the terrifying sand-cat mouth). The Cave of Wonders set, everything about it, was insane. It’s a shame that the exterior was used only briefly, but the interior was almost as breathtaking. And it had better be to even dream of hosting the next number, the introduction of the Genie via “Friend like Me.”
James Monroe Igelhart killed it as the Genie. I personally have a soft spot for Robin Williams and was fully conscious of a bias to his performance. Igelhart takes the source material and completely transforms it into something that is not only the absolute spiritual successor to the original, but something on an entirely different level. First of all, Igelhart is a master performer. I’m pretty confident there isn’t anything this man can’t do. However, this is my second problem with the show, which isn’t really a problem—Igelhart stole the show. No, he didn’t steal it; he owned it. Every time he was onstage, he made the rest of the performers almost disappear. His energy and enthusiasm commanded unbreakable attention and, coupled with his mesmerizing talent, made everything around him pale in comparison.
I will geek out here for just a moment about why “Friend Like Me” was the most impressive number in the show. I have already mentioned the set. The Cave of Wonders, as we all know, is crammed full of treasure. Really . . . shiny . . . treasure. There were some clever tricks employed to add dimension and glitz, but they also added a lot of light reflection. I mention this because the costume for the Genie covered Igelhart almost completely and the materials used were not the most heat forgiving. While the bagginess of the costume may have allowed cooling packs, packs would have added substantial weight. And all this builds up to the fact that for the entire duration of the song (which clocks in at almost eight minutes), Igelhart is dancing like mad, while singing a song that would leave the best of us completely winded after a few bars. Not only does he not even come close to missing a beat, but he keeps his voice rock steady and powerful. In that costume. With all the extra light, in addition to the blinding stage lights. And the pyrotechnics. Oh yeah. There were pyrotechnics.
And while he was front and center in ways beyond what was intended, credit should be given where credit is due. Jacobs does very well at keeping up with Igelhart. The rest of the ensemble makes the piece shine, employing several extremely blink-quick costume changes and other magic tricks. “Friend Like Me” barely ended before the crowd arose in a standing ovation that lasted three and a half minutes.
We are brought into intermission by the transformation of Aladdin into Prince Ali, and upon returning, the curtain lifts to the memorable parade number “Prince Ali.” This, very much like “Arabian Nights,” was a departure from the original while keeping some of the source material. The song was extended quite a bit, which was a pleasant surprise. It felt like the number where the ensemble really got to shine. But while it was phenomenal, it didn’t receive the same audience reaction as “Friend like Me.”
Jasmine isn’t impressed, and so it goes. This is where the story really deviates from the film. Jafar and Iago cannot legally get rid of Prince Ali unless he commits a crime. They trick him into entering Jasmine’s private chambers so they can arrest him on the charge of trespassing; upon entering, Jasmine insists he leave and, like in the film, he jumps from the window but is caught by the magic carpet. This kicks of the hit-single of the film, “A Whole New World.”
“A Whole New World” combines incredible stage tech to rig a functional “flying carpet,” which both Jacobs and Reed ride all over the stage throughout the song. In addition to the changing background scenery, Aladdin goes old school and employs kabuki and silk sheets to mimic the ocean, which was especially beautiful. When they return, Jasmine leaves to tell her father that she has finally chosen a suitor and Aladdin is arrested by the guards at the order of Jafar. Babkak, Omar, and Kassim get wind that Aladdin is in trouble and set off to storm the palace and rescue him in another song that was written for but cut from the film, called “High Adventure,” a very strong and funny number. The trio ends up getting caught alongside Aladdin, but luckily for them, Aladdin has a few wishes left. He wishes his friends free, and the four as well as the Genie perform “Somebody’s Got Your Back.”
This is the last of the full songs, the rest of the show being punctuated by reprisals of previous songs. Aladdin shows up to marry Jasmine but is determined to tell her that he isn’t really a prince. While he is going off to find her, Iago gets ahold of the lamp and hands it to Jafar. The show ends in almost exactly the same manor as the film, with Aladdin tricking Jafar into wishing himself a Genie and being trapped in his own lamp.
Aside from the issue with the casting of Jasmine and a few other very slight blemishes, I feel honored I was able to see this. If a trip to Broadway isn’t it your near future, you can find photos and videos on AladdinTheMusical.com and purchase official show soundtrack here: