Review: 'Aladdin' at the New Amsterdam Theatre

Nancy Sasso Janis

I had read some of the highlights of the praise heaped upon the current production of ‘Disney’s Aladdin (although I have not read a complete review of it.) The highlights that decorated the outside of Broadway’s New Amsterdam Theatre were glowing, so expectations were high. Could this classic Disney movie translate to the stage, especially   this   story with a crowded marketplace, Arabian garb, a magical genie who never stops talking...and a flying carpet, for goodness sake. For Disney, none of this is outside the realm of possibility and this production was indeed magical in every way.

 Chad Beguelin wrote the book for Disney’s newest musical comedy with just the right mix of parts of the 1992 animated feature and more contemporary references. Alan Menken and the  late Howard Ashman had written 11 songs for the film but most of them were cut from early drafts of the screenplay. As luck would have it, these original songs still existed and with the help of Tony nominated lyricist Mr. Beguelin, an initial draft of the show was written. Mr. Menken soon realized that the time was right to resurrect the film’s little heard deleted songs and share them with a new generation. The score integrates these lost songs with some new ones written especially for the stage, as well as favorites like the Oscar-winning  “A Whole New World” with lyrics by Tim Rice and an amazing “Friend Like Me.” Needless to say the music coordinated by Howard Jones, supervised and conducted by Michael Kosarin and played by talented musicians in the pit, soars as high as the magic carpet, which of course flies Aladdin and his princess above Agrabah.

 At the conclusion of the opening number (“Arabian Nights”) that included the genie and the entire company,  I felt a hint of a worry that the bar had been set too high. Not a problem. “One Jump Ahead” with lyrics by Tim Rice is as energetic as the animation I remember. There is the delicious villainy of Jonathan Freeman, the original voice of Jafar, and his sidekick Iago the red parrot, played with delight by Don Darryl Rivera, in the new “Diamond in the Rough.” There is the spectacle of “Friend Like Me” with a plethora of costume changes and magical illusions, but the act one finale is a mixture of its reprise and of “Proud of Your Boy” with lyrics by Mr. Ashman. 

 Act two opens with the theatrical highlight of “Prince Ali” that gives new Disney meaning to the word “spectacle.” The flying carpet takes off during “A Whole New World” but lands in time for the finale ultimo that combines the two perhaps best known classics from the film. The new pieces with lyrics by Mr. Beguelin fill in the blanks nicely, like Jasmine’s lament in “These Palace Walls” and Genie’s celebratory “Somebody’s Got Your Back.” Without a detailed program, I would be hard-pressed to sort out the songs by lyricist. 

 At the matinee for which we had second row seats far house right in an audience that packed the impressive New Amsterdam, I did not expect to see many of the original cast members in the leading roles. I was shocked that except for Courtney Reed in the role of Princess Jasmine, we got to see the original cast members, all of whom, including the ensemble members, were pretty spectacular themselves.

 Kathryn Allison played a Fortune Teller in the busy and colorful marketplace and returned to play an attendant to the princess, along with Jennifer Rias and Khori Michelle Petinaud, all of whom harmonized on “These Palace Walls.” Jaz Sealey played one of the rejected princes and Andrew Cao and Donald Jones, Jr. played henchman of Jafar. Angelo Soriano played a shop owner in the marketplace.

 Jonathan Schwartz (as Omar,) Brian Gonzales (as Babkak,) and Steel Burkhardt (as Kassim) played the trio of Al’s fellow thieves and performed one of the original songs named after them with Aladdin. Mr. Rivera does a great job as the evil bird Iago, although I am not sure that the youngest members of the audience realized that he was a bird. I saw Mr. Freeman as the ultimate Jafar and hope that he never requires another actor to attempt to top his portrayal of the role that he originated in the animated version.

'Disney’s Aladdin The New Musical Comedy' is running at the New Amsterdam Theatre in NYC.  

'Disney’s Aladdin The New Musical Comedy' is running at the New Amsterdam Theatre in NYC.  

 Veteran actor Clifton Davis (of television’s ‘That’s My Mama’) was the Sultan who wants to marry off his daughter. Lauryn Ciardullo, who toured as an ancestor in ‘The Addams Family,’ was a lovely Princess Jasmine and sang beautifully. Adam Jacobs was full of energetic joy in the role of the street rat Aladdin. The actor has played Marius in ‘Les Miserables’ and Simba in ‘The Lion King’ on Broadway and done four national tours. 

 James Monroe Iglehart won a Tony for his role as the Genie trapped in the “Itty Bitty” living space inside the magic lamp. He is big, loud and blue as the genie bursting with magical powers.There is plenty of patter, pop references and a somersault, but the actor brings his own take to the magical one that was voiced by the late Robin Williams in the film. No doubt “the hardest working genie in show business,” as Harry Haun writes in the Playbill, his performance is truly a joy to behold. 

 Casey Nicholaw directed all the spectacle and did the smart choreography was well. The 84 special effects are exciting, from book pages that turn themselves, to lots of smoke that billows over the pit, to a dark and scary cave filled with gold, to indoor fireworks. The scenic design by Bob Crowley is top notch and it is lit to perfection by Natasha Katz. Hair by Josh Marquette and makeup by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira is up to the Disney standard. 

 The costumes require their own paragraph in this review. There are 337 of them (not a typo) designed by Tony winner Gregg Barnes and handcrafted especially for the show. There are reportedly 1,428 Swarovski crystals sewn into one pair of chorus members’ pants in the finale of “Friend Like Me.” The sumptuous fabrics were imported from 9 different countries and from my close up view, I can assure you that it shows. Each and every ensemble is a work of art and are among the most beautiful I have ever seen in any show ever.

 Some might shy away from a Broadway production simply because it comes with the Disney brand. I will admit that I gave a standing ovation at ‘Finding Nemo’ in DisneyWorld in Florida and waited in line to see it again; take that for what its worth. I loved the puppets in ‘The Lion King’ but I think Aladdin sets the bar even higher in terms of sheer spectacle. I know the many lucky children in the audience loved it and I can’t wait for a touring company to appear in a venue near me, although there are no plans yet to launch one. 

UPDATE: Disney's newest musical Aladdin will arrive at the Prince Edward Theatre in June 1st, 2016, replacing the current hit Miss Saigon. After a hugely successful run on Broadway, the stage adaptation of the beloved Disney film brings to the life the vibrant Arabian Nights. Aladdin will star Jade Ewen, who is recently playing Vanessa in In the Heights and Dean John-Wilson who has toured in Sister Act. With music by Oscar and Academy Award winner Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, Aladdin features many of the original songs such as 'One Jump Ahead', 'Friend Like Me', 'Prince Ali' and, of course, 'A Whole New World'. Aladdin is directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, whose previous credits include the Book of Mormon, with design by Tony Award-winning Bob Crowley. After the huge success of Disney's The Lion King, it is guaranteed that Aladdin will be a smash hit!

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