“It’s the plot that you knew/ with a small twist or two/ but the changes we made were slight,” croons Major Attaway as the Genie in the finale of Aladdin national tour, now at the Kennedy Center.
This not-quite-apology acknowledgment of the awkward tension between the nostalgia that drives a ticket purchase (in this case for Disney’s 1992 animated classic) and the necessary adjustments to a new form and, gods willing, some new content that measures up to the old.
From both creative and performing perspectives, this version of Aladdin hits and misses with equal frequency. But fortunately for both the production and the audiences viewing it, many of the misses are made forgivable and forgettable by Attaway, who puts this production on his back and carries it home.
If you’re looking to get a nostalgic buzz in live form, this version of Aladdin will mostly hit the spot. All your favorite songs are here: “Friend Like Me,” “Whole New World,” “Prince Ali,” etc., all recognizably arranged and well-sung by this cast. Clinton Greenspan’s Aladdin is his familiar roguish and frustratingly dishonest self, complete with a delightful light tenor voice, who gets roped into lamp retrieval duty by the evil Jafar (played with appropriate cartoonishness by Jonathan Weir) who wants to use the Genie of the lamp to usurp the Sultan and Princess Jasmine, though fortunately the stage version cuts Jafar’s intention to forcibly marry Jasmine. Everything works out the same as well, no fanfic style endings, just Aladdin’s heroic triumph and the Genie’s release.
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The differences are noticeable, though. If you’re a fan of the film’s animal companions, you’re mostly out of luck here. Reggie De Leon is the best of the bunch as Iago; he captures Gilbert Gottfried’s grating comedy while still being a joy. Raja the tiger is cut entirely. Aladdin’s companion monkey is split into three buffoon compatriots, who were actually relics of lyricist Howard Ashman’s preproduction treatment of the story. The stage musical restores some of Ashman’s old songs, too, some rollicking ones from these friends (“High Adventure” and “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kasim”) as well as Aladdin’s objective song “Proud of Your Boy” which is addressed to Aladdin’s (now cut) mother. The performances of these numbers give full evidence of why they were left behind on rewrites. They lack the bright melodic bounce of other numbers, want for Ashman’s typical top-level wordplay, and, most egregiously, slow the pace of the musical down immensely.
Pace is the fundamental flaw at the heart of this stage musical, and it’s a problem that is almost unavoidable. The original film ran for about 90 minutes, but blockbuster Broadway musicals have a rather rigid form: a certain order and purpose of songs, types of characters, and a minimum length. Aladdin runs at 2 and a half hours, which means that there’s at least an hour of extra bits, not just the extra songs from Ashman, but new ones written by Chad Beguelin, who also wrote the book, none of which impress. A lot of that extra time gets put in the first quarter of the musical, and its lack of quality compounds with sometimes disappointing behind-the-beat choreography and race-to-the-bottom cheap visual gags to make parts of this show drag more than a RuPaul television special. Speedy line delivery seems to have been the directorial solution to these pace problems, but it just makes everyone feel out of rhythm, especially Kaenaon?lani Kekoa (as Jasmine) who shows that this tour is her professional debut.
Disney’s Aladdin, now at The Kennedy Center, closes September 7, 2019.
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But all is not lost, Aladdin fans, because there is a saving grace to this show, and his name is Major Attaway. Having played the role on Broadway for a few years and for several months of this national tour, Attaway and the Genie fit each other like gloves. His lightning fast, yet rhythmic, line reads rip the audience open with laughter. His showstopping number, “Friend Like Me,” is possibly worth the ticket price on its own. He’s the only actor whose force of personality and bearing keep up with the show’s luscious, overbedazzled, and multitudinous fabric-layered design. His treatment of Chad Beguelin’s lines shines, especially in a few serious moments. As a Black man playing a character whose main obstacle is compelled servitude, Attaway brings a welcome sting to some of his interactions with Aladdin. The tone shift is subtle, yet cuts all the deeper for its skilled presentation.
The other great reason to see this show is its totally over-the-top design. There are almost no magic flashes left unflashed. From pyrotechnics from the floor and in the air, to a slickly rigged flying magic carpet, to costuming tricks galore (the particular fave being Jafar’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it shifts in the finale), ostentation is the bones of this show. Every moment of this show is given every inch of gimcrack frippery it can handle…and then they top it off with another layer. Even Aladdin’s humble rooftop abode gets a projection treatment, multiple moving set pieces including an elevated platform and a backdrop of the palace of Agrabah, hanging fabrics, and several layers of differing ombres of lighting. If all this sounds impressive to you (the work that went into it certainly is), then Aladdin’s production design will blow you away.
Whether this national tour of Aladdin is for you really depends on what you value in a big time stage adaptation of a popular property. If you are looking for new material that improves and enlivens the original with consistent and complex performances across the cast, you might want to hold off. But if you want the glitz of Broadway amalgamated with an unforgettable performance and a deep draught of nostalgia, then the Kennedy Center’s Aladdin is the show for you.
Disney’s Aladdin: The Hit Broadway Musical. Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, and Chad Beguilen. Book by Chad Beguilen. Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw. Featuring Clinton Greenspan, Major Attaway, Kaenaon?lani, Jonathan Weir, Reggie De Leon, Jerald Vincent, Zach Bencal, Ben Chavez, Colt Prattes, Korie Lee Blossey, Adam Setevenson, and Frank Viveros . Music Direction by Faith Seetoo . Original Fight Direction by J. Allen Suddeth . Poduction Stage Management by Kathleen E. Purvis . Sound Design by Ken Travis . Hair Design by Josh Marquette . Makeup Design by Milagros Medina-Cedeira . Illusion Design by Jim Steinmeyer . Costume Design by Gregg Barnes . Lighting Design by Natasha Katz . Scenic Design by Bob Crowley. Produced by Disney Theatrical Productions and the Kennedy Center. Reviewed by Alan Katz.
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