Back in the twentieth century, Walt Disney Pictures got it just right with its animated feature “Aladdin.” Its producers used only a few songs from Alan Menken and Howard Ashman (with help from lyricist Tim Rice), they kept the nearly nonexistent story down to a friendly 90 minutes, and hired Robin Williams to do the voice of the Genie, his surreal riffs nicely visualized by the animators.
Twenty-two years later, Disney Theatricals brings “Aladdin” to Broadway, where it opened Thursday at the New Amsterdam Theater, and it pads the story with Menken/Ashman tunes that got cut from the movie, adds some characters and new songs, turns the Genie into a big show queen, and abracadabra! It’s a two-and-a-half hour show. Children would probably prefer 90 minutes; no doubt, adults will, too.
Although the Genie (the literally breathlessly James Monroe Iglehart) kicks-off the show to introduce the story and characters with the big, brassy “Arabian Nights,” he then takes a long nap in his lantern before reappearing near the end of Act One to perform “Friend Like Me” and a quick medley of tunes from other Disney musicals. It’s only then that “Aladdin,” under the direction of Casey Nicholaw, reveals itself as a spoof of Broadway musicals — or is it Vegas shows? — not unlike the Nicholaw-helmed “A Drowsy Chaperone”and “Spamalot,” which he choreographed. Suffice to say, “Aladdin” bears no resemblance to Nicholaw’s previous laugh-filled Broadway effort, “The Book of Mormon.”
And neither does Chad Beguelin’s book, which is loaded with some clever “Sesame Street” word play but finds no magic whatsoever in a story rife with magic lanterns, carpets, genies and sultry Arabian nights. Will children get the humor in send-ups of old tap and soft-shoe numbers? Isn’t mocking stage traditions a rather cynical way to introduce children to the theater? The only stab at genuine romance and magic is the Menken/Rice song “A Whole New World,” which finds poor-boy Aladdin (Adam Jacobs) and bored Princess Jasmine (Courtney Reed) atop a carpet that actually appears to be flying around the stage without the help of wires or hydraulics.
Jacobs and Reed offer big Broadway singing voices that eschew the homogenized crooning of their animated predecessors. But Aladdin’s cohorts Babkak (Brian Gonzalez), Omar (Jonathan Schwartz) and Kassim (Brandon O’Neill) are characters better left on the cutting-room floor along with their Menken/Ashman song “High Adventure,” not to mention their new Menken/Beguelin song “Somebody’s Got Your Back.”
Jasmine is another of those Disney princesses who, unlike ingénues of yesterday, turns out to be just as brash, aggressive and obnoxious as the men around her. It’s a curious conflict: trying to be feminist and yet telling stories that aggrandize royalty, the most repressive class-driven institution known to man.