As I watched ALADDIN, I thought about how, whether intentionally or not, it is a tribute to earlier forms of musical theatre: the fairy tale spectacular that was popular around the turn of the 20th century and old-fashioned Golden Age musical comedy. It certainly is the most spectacular show I have ever seen. Disney specializes in grand, old-fashioned spectacles enhanced by the possibilities of contemporary computer technology. The show keeps topping itself. Just when you think they have run out of grand coups de theatre, you get another one. Veteran scene designer Bob Crowley has outdone himself and the hundreds of costumes by Gregg Barnes are witty and beautiful. The show is also a tribute to old-fashioned musical comedies. There's a winking, self-reflexive dimension to the show, an acknowledgement of the audience and the history of the genre. One number, "Friend Like Me," is an entire history of Broadway musical production numbers in one song. Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw has created a valentine to the musical.
Alan Menken's score could have been written in 1950. No rock or rap here, just old-fashioned show tunes with witty lyrics (Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, Chad Beguelin). The orchestra had strings, horns and saxophones along with the inevitable synthesizers. It's a catchy score while you hear it but not a score you remember after leaving the theatre. I had never seen the animated film so the score was new to me.
The problem with the show, which was also the problem with THE LION KING (for me at least), is that the show soars during the musical numbers and falls flat during the dialogue scenes. The villains, tall, thin Jafar and short, chubby Iago, are neither funny nor frightening. They may have worked as cartoon characters but they don't work on stage. Physically they look like a comedy team but their are too scripted --the performers don't seem to have personality of their own, a problem endemic to Disney musicals with their assembly line casts who are supposed to repeat exactly the same performance as their predecessors. I came to dread their entrances. They barely have any music to sing, thus seem outside of the world of the musical. In an old fashioned musical, they would have been played by comics whose schtick was both familiar to audiences. They would also have room to improvise (think Jackie Gleason, Phil Silvers, Nathan Lane). Few performers are allowed to do this nowadays. When I saw the current revival of HELLO, DOLLY!, Bette Midler and David Hyde Pierce ad libbed a bit. The audience loved it.
The show really comes to life late in the first act when The Genie appears. I doubt if Anthony Murphy was allowed much freedom to be improvisatory in the machine that is a Disney musical, but he had the funniest material and lived mostly through the musical numbers. It was literally a fabulous performance. Adam Jacobs, the original Broadway Aladdin was charming but I did have a sense that he's done the show a hundred too many times. There was not even the illusion of spontaneity (the illusion of spontaneity is all one can expect in a Disney extravaganza). He gets the best songs and is a terrific singer. Everyone else was perfectly fine, if not as funny as they could be (not necessarily the performers' fault). Real musical comedy is an art mastered only by years of experience. You can't teach someone to be funny or direct someone to be funny. Real comedy comes in part out of the personality of the performer. One rarely sees a group of good seasoned comics in a musical. SOMETHING'S ROTTEN (also directed by Casey Nicholaw), was the only musical I have seen in years with a cast of gifted comics. It was funny in a way that ALADDIN rarely was. Some of the lines were funny, the delivery less so. There was one woman in the cast who had about four lines in the entire show but managed to land laughs better with her few lines than most of the leads did. One problem is that ALADDIN is playing in the gigantic, 2500 seat Cadillac Palace Theatre. I was in the seventh row, so could see facial expressions. Most of the audience was much, much farther back, so all that registered were the heavily amplified voices, large physical gestures and scenic effects.
I enjoyed the musical numbers enormously--could have done without a lot of the talk. Still, glad I saw it.