It’s not until the top of Aladdin’s second act that “A Whole New World” — the most famous song from the original 1992 animated classic and arguably the most well-known duet in Disney’s musical canon — arrives, and with it, a bit of still-inscrutable stage magic as incognito ruffian Aladdin and princess Jasmine fly a magic carpet across a bedazzled night sky. The stage effect and its effect are both tremendous, even for adult theatergoers but especially for young ones. Sitting beside a little boy of no more than seven, I watched out of the corner of my eye as awe visibly struck him when Aladdin and Jasmine took flight; he had, of course, expressed similar fascination during earlier moments in the show, like the Genie’s marathon musical introduction in act one. But it wasn’t until this ballad began, and the carpet’s aerial dance surged with a particular flourish both musical and technical, that the boy finally let a tear loose. And my first wish is to be able to say I didn’t almost shed one then, too.
Musicals, at their best, are defiant acts of wonder, but specifically with Aladdin, which opened the Los Angeles leg of its national tour at the Pantages Theatre on January 11, I was reminded of the restorative power of the musical stories that have emerged from Disney’s prized animation arm. Translated onto the Broadway stage in 2014, Aladdin followed other successful theatrical adaptations like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, all bearing a sturdy story with memorable characters and more than a handful of beloved tunes. Aladdin, as one of the early favorites in the Disney Renaissance of the ‘90s (and one which just celebrated its 25th birthday in November), was more than well-primed for a new life on stage. Around town, I recall the show’s critical reception on Broadway falling closer to the temperature of a cool desert night than a sizzling day, but Aladdin has nevertheless proven itself as a successful mainstay on 42nd Street, playing above 98% capacity on average since opening almost four years ago.
Revisiting the show now on tour, it’s evident that age has not weathered any of the magical spirit that Aladdin brings, whether to Los Angeles or beyond. It’s a show built on a non-stop whirligig, with a book laced with hummus jokes (for the adults) and slapstick (for the kids, and maybe the adults, too) and a score that fills in Alan Menken, Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice’s existing suite with a few rich new baubles (“Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim” and “High Adventure,” both sung by Aladdin’s newly-created coterie of street buddies, are standouts). Chad Beguelin’s is a fast, funny script that may roll a few more eyes than heads, but to its great credit, it never lets up the pace, which in turn makes the slow moments (like villain Jafar and sidekick Iago’s vaudeville proscenium asides) slower, but also allows its dizziest runs—e.g. anything emerging from the show’s Genie du jour, Michael James Scott—to fly even faster.
Nuance comes singularly from Adam Jacobs, who originated the part of Aladdin on Broadway and whom audiences should count themselves lucky to see reprise the title role on tour. Jacobs is a boy wonder with a million-dollar smile (not to mention vibrato) and the kind of infectious enthusiasm that makes it easy for an audience to quickly champion — and if that’s our effortless act, his is in a fluent grasp of Aladdin’s charm. (We are, after all, rooting for a serial perjurer and criminal.) With such a long history in the role, Jacobs happily avoids the pitfall of many performers who can visibly sink too comfortably into roles they’ve played for an extended period of time (see: the minimal efforts of certain merry murderesses on Broadway). But Jacobs is far from comfortable — he’s confident, and his remains a performance as energized as it is endearing.
As a worthy foil, Something Rotten! breakout Scott inherits Tony winner James Monroe Iglehart’s star-making Genie slippers once again (having originated the part in Aladdin‘s Australian production). Scott’s act-one showstopper “Friend Like Me” is as effusive and breathless a performing act as his predecessor, but what Scott does with the Genie’s comic interstitials and de facto hosting duties manages to leave a wholly singular, indelible mark on a role that, even given director Casey Nicholaw’s re-imagination, still remains a tour-de-force part that’s just adjacent to impossible. Elsewhere in the cast, Isabelle McCalla plays a steely, acerbic Jasmine, while Aladdin’s pals (Mike Longo, Philippe Arroyo, and Zach Bencal) steal the parts of the show the Genie has left up for grabs.
Having not seen this production since the week of its Broadway premiere but having spent a few years getting comfortable with its cast album, I’ve come to develop a fondness for Aladdin’s efforts to become something entirely unique on stage, and successfully at that — treasures like the original Aladdin are deemed so for a reason. But as a director of another movie-turned-musical once told me (and I paraphrase), audiences may think they want to see a movie recaptured to the tiniest detail, but what they actually want is merely to recapture the feeling of watching it. At the end of the Arabian day, such is undeniably the case with this musical, as feeling is in plentiful supply where Genies beguile, deserts turn electric, and carpets fly astonishingly across skies. A-