Saturday, 12 April 2014

Review - Aladdin Soars to A Whole New World on Broadway

Adam Jacobs as Aladdin, Photo by Deen Van Meer

What a difference 3 years makes.  When Disney first announced that Broadway's Aladdin would be an "all new" production I was sceptical.  Of course I was expecting new sets, new costumes and new special effects befitting a Broadway production with a bigger budget, along with some changes to the book and songs following feedback from the Pilot, regional and international productions, but to call it a completely new production?  That seemed a little excessive.  But, true to their word, that's what Disney have delivered.  The show that opened on Broadway on 20th March is an entirely new version of Aladdin.

Whilst the original production attempted to go back (as much as the film's story would allow) to Howard Ashman's original vision of Aladdin, this new production retains the musical comedy tone that Ashman envisioned but moves the story back closer to that of Disney's animated classic.  In particular, the removal of Aladdin's three friends as narrators (along with 3 reprises of Arabian Nights) noticeably changes the structure and pace of the show, and, as much as I did enjoy their 4th wall breaking antics, I have to admit that the show is much stronger for the change.

With Aladdin's friends no longer narrating, it is James Monroe Iglehart's Genie who now opens the show.  Appearing on stage to thunderous applause he quickly sets the tone for the evening, telling the audience "it is not what it outside, but what is inside that counts ... wow, got a little deep there".  Yes, this is Aladdin, but with a decidedly musical comedy twist.  Welcoming the audience to Agrabah (where "even our poor people look fabulous and everyone here has a minor in dance") he introduces us to our heroes and villains whilst leading the ensemble through a vigorously performed and expertly choreographed rendition of Arabian Nights.  It's a fantastic opening to the show, showcasing the vocal talents of the entire cast along with the energetic choreography of Director Casey Nicholaw and the rich and vibrant colours of the costumes, sets and lighting (more on those in a bit), and the best is still to come.

As a massive Disney fan, and an even bigger Aladdin fan, there was so much that I loved about this production, but if I had to pick just one thing that truly stands above the rest it would be the cast.  The energy and enthusiasm of this cast is simply infectious and you just can't help but smile along with them as they sing, dance and joke their way through this enchanting re-telling of the classic story.  Between Aladdin and Newsies Disney must have two of the best, and certainly hardest working, ensembles on Broadway.  This is a cast that's giving it their all and clearly loving every moment and no where is this more evident than when James Monroe Iglehart's Genie takes centre with a literally show stopping performance of Friend Like Me that brought the audience to their feet both times I saw the show.  Iglehart and the ensemble sing, dance, perform magic tricks and even have time to sing a few old classics before bringing everything to a rousing tap dance finale.  I can say without any doubt that the cast recording, as phenomenal as I expect it to be, just won't be able to do this song justice, you simply have to see it for yourself.  Iglehart, Adam Jacobs' Aladdin and the entire ensemble deserve every second of the applause and standing ovations that they have been receiving.

James Monroe Iglehart as Genie, Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

But as incredible as Friend Like Me is, it wasn't my favourite moment in the show.  That came in Act 2 as Adam Jacobs' Aladdin asked Courtney Reed's Princess Jasmine "care to go for a ride?"  As she joined him on the magic carpet and the set pulled away the audience burst into applause as they took flight with no visible wires or support.  A Whole New World has never looked or sounded better and I'm not ashamed to admit that I had tears of joy in my eyes as I watched part of my childhood come alive on stage.

The heart of the show is Adam Jacobs' Aladdin, his romance with Courtney Reed's Jasmine, friendship with James Monroe Iglehart's Genie and his desire to make something of his life, a desire perfectly captured by Ashman/Menken's "lost" classic Proud of Your Boy and carried through the show by two new Menken/Beguelin reprises.  Adam Jacobs brings Aladdin to life with an earnest charm and winning smile.  He looks and sounds like Aladdin brought to life, if you closed your eyes at the start of One Jump Ahead you would swear you were watching the film, but more importantly he succeeds in finding the emotional core of the character, especially in the show's quieter moments like his duets with Jasmine and in his moving performance of Proud of Your Boy.  As Jasmine, Courtney Reed both looks and sounds beautiful as she brings the strong willed princess to life.  If there is any character who has benefitted most from the changes to the show then it's Jasmine.  Gone is the girl who playfully scarred off suitors by playing a diva in Call Me a Princess, in her place is modern, progressive woman (this Jasmine doesn't just want to marry for love, she want to rule at her future husband's side as his equal) and a beautiful new Menken/Beguelin song that better reflects Jasmine's character and her desire to explore beyond These Palace Walls.  More is also made of Jasmine's first experience of the market place and Courtney Reed gives Jasmine a sense of wonder as she takes in this new world.  The chemistry between Courtney and Adam is fantastic and their duets are some of my favourite moments in the show.

Adam Jacobs and Courtney Reed as Aladdin and Jasmine, Photo by Deen Van Meer

James Monroe Iglehart brings Genie to life with enough energy to light up Times Square all by himself!  Successfully taking the character back to Howard Ashman's vision of a Fats Waller/Cab Calloway song and dance man he makes the roll his own whilst still retaining the essence of Robin Williams' iconic film performance.  He's a born entertainer and holds the audience in the palm of his hand every moment he's on stage and leaves them begging for more every time that he goes back into his lamp.  One of the biggest questions about bringing Aladdin to the stage has always been "how do you do the Genie?"  James Monroe Iglehart is the answer.  Casting Jonathan Freeman as Jafar is at once obvious and absolute genius, his voice is so iconic and distinctive that the moment you hear it you think "Jafar!" but what really surprised me was just how much he looked the part as well.  His facial expressions in some scenes were absolutely perfect.  Jonathan knows the character inside and out, he knows what makes him tick, his mannerisms and his psychosis and he uses this to great effect, bringing the character to life as well on stage as he did on screen.  He is also perfectly paired with Don Darryl Rivera's Iago.  Though Iago has been changed from parrot to human (with a few knowing references to his avian origins) he still remains the same slightly abrasive, slightly sadistic character that everyone loved from the animated classic.  Making his Broadway debut Don Darryl Rivera displays expert comic timing and is perfectly cast as Jafar's evil henchman.  He and Jonathan Freeman have such fantastic chemistry together that it's a joy to watch them as they plot and scheme how to take control of Agrabah (with a healthy dose of grovelling on Iago's part).

Though Jafar still has Iago, in bringing the film to the stage Aladdin has lost Abu.  As much as I love the mischievous little monkey it was a smart choice, this isn't like The Lion King where everyone is an animal and a man in a monkey suit would look out of place in the world that Casey Nicholaw and his team have created.  In his place Aladdin now has three new friends, the courageous Kassim, the romantic, but slightly cowardly, Omar and the permanently hungry Babkak, brought to life by Brandon O'Neill (making his Broadway debut), Jonathan Schwartz and Brian Gonzales respectively.  No longer narrators the trio's roles have been reduced slightly since earlier productions of the show but this has ultimately strengthened their roles as Aladdin's friends.  The three give great performances and their high octane and comical rendition of High Adventure is one of the standout moments of the show's second act.  Brandon O'Neill also shows off his voice acting talents by providing the low rumbling bass of the Cave of Wonders.  Completing the principal cast, Clifton Davis brings a new gravitas and dignity to the Sultan and I'm happy to say that the part has been expanded from the film and earlier productions giving him a bit more to get his teeth into, including a new reprise of Prince Ali.  I also want to compliment standby Michael James Scott who gave a fantastic performance as Babkak at one of the two shows I attended.

Jonathan Freeman as Jafar and Don Darryl Rivera as Iago, Photo by Deen Van Meer

In addition to a dream cast Aladdin also had a creative dream team.  Bob Crowley (Scenic Design), Gregg Barnes (Costume Design) and Natasha Katz (Lighting Design) have between them managed to re-create the rich and vibrant look and colours of the animate film on stage making Aladdin a visual feast from beginning to end.  The costumes are just dazzling and the Cave of Wonders is a sight to behold both inside and out.  Speaking of sights to behold, I don't know how Illusion Designer Jim Steinmeyer made the magic carpet fly and I don't want to, I'm just happy that he did.  A Whole New World is simply breath taking.  Which brings me nicely to the music.  Alan Menken has always been my favourite composer and this show doesn't disappoint.  It has everything from soaring ballads and romantic duets to toe tapping show stoppers and even a sung action scene!  Considering that the show has three lyricists there is a remarkable seamlessness to both Aladdin's story and music and for that writer and lyricist Chad Beguelin has my deepest thanks and respect.  In addition to the Howard Ashman/Alan Menken and Alan Menken/Tim Rice songs from the film Aladdin brings back three of the best Ashman/Menken songs that were cut from the movie and has four new Menken/Beguelin songs and a few new reprises as well.  I've had these songs stuck in my head since leaving the theatre and can't wait to re-visit them when the cast album is released.  In charge of all of this is Director and Choreographer Casey Nicholaw.  The Tony Award winning Director of The Book of Mormon may have seemed like an odd choice when Disney were looking for someone to helm their next family friendly musical but Casey was undoubtedly the man for the job.  Magic carpets aside the spectacle of Aladdin is almost entirely human, this is a modern version of the traditional song and dance musical comedy and Casey Nicholaw's choreography is at its heart.  Friend Like Me and Prince Ali show that he knows how to build spectacle, but quieter moments like Proud of Your Boy (particularly its second act reprise) and A Million Miles Away show he also knows when to pull back and let the characters carry the scene, and with A Whole New World he manages to pull of both spectacular and intimate at the same time.

It took 19 years for Aladdin to make the transition from screen to stage and almost another 3 years for it to finally reach Broadway but if that's what was needed to bring this cast and creative team together then it was well worth the wait.  I had 3 years of built up expectations for this show, and seeing the Tuacahn's production only pushed those expectations higher, and I'm happy to say that it didn't disappoint.  Seeing the original cast on a Broadway stage was a dream come true for me and I hope that the show has the long and successful run that it deserves.  Aladdin is a visual and musical delight and above all it's just great fun and I couldn't wish for anything more than that.

Aladdin: Broadway's New Musical Comedy officially opened on Broadway on 20th March 2014 at The New Amsterdam Theatre.  Produced by Disney Theatrical Productions under the direction of Thomas Schumacher, based on the Disney film written by Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and directed by John Musker and Ron Clements.

Starring Adam Jacobs, James Monroe Iglehart, Courtney Reed, Brian Gonzales, Brandon O'Neill, Jonathan Schwartz, Clifton Davis, Don Darryl Rivera and Jonathan Freeman as "Jafar"

Standbys Merwin Foard and Michael James Scott

The ensemble features Tia Altinay, Mike Cannon, Andrew Cao, Lauryn Ciardullo, Joshua Dela Cruz, Yurel Echezarreta, Daisy Hobbs, Donald Jones Jr., Adam Kaokept, Nikki Long, Stanley Martin, Brandt Martinez, Michael Mindlin, Rhea Patterson, Bobby Pestka, Khori Michelle Petinaud, Aleks Pevec, Ariel Reid, Jennifer Rias, Trent Saunders, Jaz Sealey, Dennis Stowe, Marisha Wallace and Bud Weber

Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, Book and Additional Lyrics by Chad Beguelin, Associate Producer Anne Quart, Technical Supervision by Geoffrey Quart/Hudson Theatrical Associates and David Benken, Production Supervisor Clifford Schwartz, Production Managers Myriah Bash and Eduardo Castro, Associate Director Scott Taylor, Associate Choreographer John MacInnis, Casting by Tara Rubin Casting and Eric Woodall, CSA, Dance Music Arrangements by Glen Kelly, Music Coordinator Howard Joines, Fight Direction by J. Allen Suddeth, Sound Design by Ken Travis, Hair Design by Josh Marquette, Makeup Design by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira, Illusion Design by Jim Steinmeyer, Costume Design by Gregg Barnes, Lighting Design by Natasha Katz, Scenic Design by Bob Crowley, Orchestrations by Danny Troob, Music Supervision, Incidental Music and Vocal Arrangements by Michael Kosarin, Directed and Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw

The premiere of Aladdin was produced by The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, WA.  David Armstrong, Executive Producer & Artistic Director; Bernadine C. Griffin, Managing Director; Bill Berry; Producing Director.

Tickets are available from

Adam Jacobs as Aladdin, Photo by Deen Van Meer

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing this thorough and eloquent review of every aspect of Aladdin. This is a very even review that covers everything, and of course, gives its due to Mr. Iglehart.

    Thank you for acknowledging Chad Beguelin's good work too. There are some reviews that say that Chad Beguelin's book did not pay proper tribute to Howard Ashman's genius, but that's an unfair assessment.Thank you for giving him respect in your review.

    Thank you for mentioning Brandon O' Neill as the Cave. That's some impressive vocal gymnastics there, and I remembered the Cave very well, but for some reason I forgot that Brandon O' Neill did its intimidating bass voice.

    Thank you also for detailing Jonathan Freeman's physicalization of Jafar in the show. My apologies in advance for long-windedness:

    There are many comments and reviews mentioning how he was good vocally, but his physical performance has gone largely without mention so far.

    I wholeheartedly agree with you that Jonathan Freeman embodied Jafar on stage just as well as he did vocally behind the mic. In his arm and hand movements, in the way he walks, holds himself, bends. There's also a unique energy that Jafar has, which separates him from other evil advisers or power-hungry types, or even other Disney villains. And Jonathan Freeman brings that very specific energy to the stage, giving us the definitive Jafar with all of his idiosyncrasies.

    It's something really special for a number of reasons, one being that it's relatively rare that an actor reprises the same role 20 years later--usually if they return to the show, they play an older character. If they do play the same character, then the show emphasizes how much older they've gotten, making jokes about their age.

    But Jonathan Freeman is reprising Jafar, a 40-something, at 60-something, and still playing him as a 40-something. That's nothing short of amazing. And what's even more amazing is that he not only originated Jafar, but has been voicing Jafar for over 20 years. And he brought a voiceover role to the stage. That's unprecedented. Simply phenomenal.