The Disney animated classic Aladdin did, along with Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, cement the company Renaissance that began with The Little Mermaid. But whereas Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King both made celebrated translations to the stage, Aladdin, much like the stage version of The Little Mermaid, smells like fish.
The first major tour of Aladdin opened Tuesday night at Los Angeles’ Pantages, and despite expensive production design and a hard-working cast, this magic carpet never takes flight. Adi Roy dons the fez and vest of the title role and looks and sounds every bit of the part. Ditto Shenzel Ahmady, who slips into Jasmine’s harem pants. Both have voices that seem destined for a Disney musical romance. Their rendition of “A Whole New World” has just as much passion and—dare we say, even more sexual tension—as its cinematic counterpart.
‘Aladdin”s Carpet Doesn't Fly
But Chad Beguelin’s book—adapted from the screenplay by Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rossio—strips both characters of their agency. Ahmady, as Jasmine, suffers the most, with limited time on stage and virtually no character arc. Both Aladdin and Jasmine’s lack of character growth might have something to do with the elimination of two animal characters: Abu the monkey and Raja the tiger. Though neither character spoke in the film, the two pets offered Aladdin and Jasmine counterpoints to express inner feelings and dreams. Beguelin tries to compensate for the absence of Abu and Raja by giving Aladdin a gang of friendly street thieves and Jasmine a Harem, though neither group has the charm or personality of their animal predecessors. Indeed, Jasmine’s clan of attendants gets no characterization at all. Babkak, Omar, and Kassim, played by Jake Letts, Ben Chavez, and Cold Prattes, respectively, get their own song and some slapstick action scenes but add little in the way of charm to the proceedings.
The show’s biggest misstep, however, comes from its use of the movie’s most popular character. The late Robin Williams made the Genie a sensation—to this day, he remains one of the most popular characters of the Disney Renaissance era. The Genie’s relationship with Aladdin and the arc of their friendship provided the backbone of the animated movie, more so than the romance between Aladdin and Jasmine or the evil Jafar’s scheming.
Actor Marcus M. Martin shows off incredible talent for dance, comedy, and song, but the show makes a serious structural blunder in delaying Aladdin’s discovery of Genie and the magic lamp until the finale of Act I. Aladdin discovered the lamp much earlier in the film, and Williams’ energy helped keep the film entertaining. Martin has that same level of energy and devotion on stage, but his limited role lays bare a grim reality: without the Genie’s comedy antics, Aladdin and Jasmine are boring characters. Casey Nicholaw also directs Martin to constantly break the fourth wall, which undermines Genie’s participation in the story. Like a Las Vegas lounge singer, he seems more concerned with flirting with the audience than the chorus line of dancers behind him. That said, Martin’s rendition of “Friend Like Me,” extended to include stage magic and a tap dancing chorus, does mark the highlight of the evening.
The use of actual magic tricks may help Aladdin in the short term, but they also underline one of the show’s biggest drawbacks. Animation makes anything possible, and nothing on the stage can compete with magic carpet chases, sorcery, or Jafar turning into a giant snake. Incidentally, Anand Nagraj does a good enough job channeling the movie’s slimy take on the villain, though with his abilities to use magic diminished, Jafar doesn’t come off as threatening or as fun. The choice to make the talking parrot Iago into a person—played gamely by Aaron Choi—also makes his character and interplay with Jafar grating more than funny.
Families might have fun at a matinee performance of Aladdin, but theatre lovers thrilled by the recent tours of Les Miserables, Six, or even Tina: The Musical will likely find this latest Pantages offering boring. The cast, like the audience, deserves far better than this cynical and flaccid cash grab. No amount of lush production, familiar Disney standards, or forgettable new music can make this Aladdin magical. Fans wishing to see their beloved movie translated to the stage will end up regretting rubbing this lamp.
Rating: 2/10 SPECS
Now through September 23, 2023
Costa Mesa – Segerstrom Center for the Arts
May 7-12, 2024