Reviewed by Katie Buenneke
Hollywoood Pantages Theatre
Through March 31
Disney, that behemoth that only grows larger as each day passes, earned itself some goodwill in the theatrical landscape with its last outing, Peter and the Starcatcher — a charming, innovative take on the Peter Pan legend. Disney’s latest stage offering, Aladdin, has some charm and innovation, but feels as bland and shiny as the cast’s mile-wide smiles.
The story here is mostly the same as the 1992 animated movie on which the show is based: Aladdin (Adam Jacobs), a charming street rat and “diamond in the rough” (no really, that exact phrase is uttered at least a dozen times) meets the incognito Princess Jasmine (Isabelle McCalla) and, because it’s a Disney story, it’s love at first sight. The story’s sneering villain, Jafar (Jonathan Weir, with eyebrows drawn halfway to his hairline) entices Aladdin to sneak into the Cave of Wonders and steal a magic lamp. Inside the lamp resides a wisecracking genie (Michael James Scott), happy to grant Aladdin three wishes and put on killer 11 o’clock number. Aladdin decides this is his chance at wooing Jasmine, but things go awry.
The shining star of the show is the original score, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice. (Ashman died of AIDS-related complications while writing the movie.) A few songs that were cut from the original movie were added back for the stage version, alongside new additions with music by Menken and lyrics by Chad Beguelin. The Ashman and Rice numbers, with their delightfully clever lyrics, stand head and shoulders above the newer, more pedestrian songs.
Unfortunately, some of the movie’s most charming and funny elements have been altered significantly. Iago (Reggie de Leon) is more grating than funny, and no longer a bird. Abu the monkey is gone (though he’s briefly referenced in one of the production numbers), and the magic carpet is no longer charming nor anthropomorphic — it only appears to help Aladdin and Jasmine float through the sky.
And float it does! It’s a beautiful bit of spectacle watching Aladdin and Jasmine fly over Agrabah singing “A Whole New World,” though it’s easy to get caught up in trying to figure out how the engineers pulled it off instead of listening to the song.
The show’s pacing drags through the first act, only picking up once Michael James Scott’s Genie pops out of his lamp in the gorgeous and shiny Cave of Wonders (designed by Bob Crowley). Unfortunately, the Cave is so stunning it makes the other set pieces look downright dull in comparison.
This is a common occurrence throughout the show; while there are bright spots (usually when Scott is onstage, leading the cast in a huge number), too often the show gets bogged down in blandness. The ensemble, under the direction and choreography of Casey Nicholaw, were occasionally off the beat in the large dance numbers. Leads Jacobs and McCalla come across with less personality than their animated counterparts, and many of the jokes Scott delivers (presumably written by Beguelin, who wrote the book in addition to the new lyrics) verge dangerously close to caricature.
The casting of Scott, a black man, in the role of the Genie also highlights some of the more uncomfortable social themes in the story. The Genie is, quite literally, a slave held captive and forced to serve a master. Aladdin, “diamond in the rough” that he is, generously offers to set the Genie free — after he has granted two wishes to Aladdin first, of course. Later, Aladdin flippantly decides it’s easier not to free the Genie, and while this is a Bad Thing that Aladdin does, he’s quickly forgiven once he actually does. It’s a sour note in the show’s happy ending.
There’s plenty in this Aladdin to wow the kids, but surprisingly, it’s not a significant improvement on the long-running abridged version of the movie that played four times a day at Disney’s California Adventure theme park until 2016.
Hollywood Pantages Theatre, 6233 Hollywood Blvd.; Tue.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.; through March 31. HollywoodPantages.com/DisneysAladdin Running time: two hours and 25 minutes with a 15-minute intermission.