Review: ‘Aladdin’ restores magic to Disney’s theatrical portfolio


About a decade ago, I fell out of love with Disney on Broadway.

First there was the “Tarzan” flop of 2006, with music by Phil Collins of ’80s rock band Genesis. Then the glitzy but disappointing “The Little Mermaid” two years later. Though Georgia’s Tituss Burgess (Netflix’s “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”) put his inimitable stamp on Sebastian, the mellifluous Calypso crab, the show was largely devoid of the charm that made the Alan Menken-Howard Ashman score for the 1989 animated film on which it was based such a delight.

No matter how much money Disney had at its disposal, it couldn’t conjure magic.

But on Thursday night at the Fox Theatre, something bordering on miraculous happened. Something akin to flying on a magic carpet or discovering your own personal Genie.

“Aladdin,” based on Disney’s 1992 feature, is a triumph. It’s got the music of Menken and the lyrics of Ashman and Tim Rice, plus new songs in collaboration with librettist Chad Beguelin. It’s directed and choreographed by A-lister Casey Nicholaw (“The Book of Mormon”). (Having Nicholaw on your team makes a big difference, let me tell you.) And thanks to Bob Crowley’s sets and Gregg Barnes’ costumes, it’s a visual knockout. The court of the Sultan (Jerald Vincent) and his strong-willed princess-daughter, Jasmine (Lissa deGuzman), and the golden cave where Aladdin (Clinton Greenspan) travels to retrieve the magic lantern, are spectacular.

Greenspan and deGuzman, as young lovers tested by the evil shenanigans of the usurping Jafar (Jonathan Weir), fairly drip with youthful energy. Greenspan, who trained as a gymnast, is an elastic, Pilobolus-worthy mover who perhaps tries a little too hard at first but still manages to seduce us. DeGuzman’s Jasmine is a bundle of spunk in gossamer gowns. The actor is a gorgeous singer, too.

Though it’s hard to divert our attention from this dreamy duo, there’s some very fine character work from Weir and Trevor Dion Nicholas, as Genie. Weir’s Jafar is a paragon of evil: arching eyebrows, lugubrious demeanor. He even carries a staff built to look like a hissing, hooded cobra.

That Nicholas, though. From his Braves-cap gag at the top of the show until we last see him, in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, he’s a stitch. The genius of his comedy is the way he resists cliches and incorporates references from the whole of African-American pop culture. His style is virtually impossible to pin down.

And then there’s the music.

Unlike much of the meaningless dreck that cheapens Broadway today, it is grand and lustrous. Though there are Arabian flourishes to be sure, the score is at its heart a valentine to the golden age of jazz and vaudeville. It swings. “One Jump Ahead,” for instance, has the frantic, syncopated rhythm of a classic cartoon. “Friend Like Me,” a solo for Genie, unpacks screaming horns, jive talk, bebop, gospel. It’s Gershwin meets Ellington meets Xavier Cugat, with a Disney-referencing musical-theater montage to boot. One of the rare false notes is “A Whole New World,” a saccharine number with Rice’s signature scribbled all over it: “shining, shimmering, splendid.” Yuck.

I can’t say enough good things about the design tool kit. Crowley stretches the figureless, geometric architecture of the Islamic world toward infinity, and paints his vision in ultra-vivid Day-Glo colors. As for that enchanted cave, I’ve never seen anything like it. Filigree on top of filigree.

Barnes’ costumes accentuate the supple bodies of the dancers, yet he uses enough silk, satin, and sparkly fabric to drape the Taj Mahal. Pretty exquisite. I don’t want to spoil the surprise. But that Magic Carpet is one smooth little ride, and I’m not sure how they created the illusion, either.

Inevitably someone will say “Aladdin” is loaded with Middle Eastern stereotypes. Whatever. Personally, I don’t see that; I think Disney vetted material to within an inch of its life. As well it should: Two score and one year ago, Julie Taymor’s “The Lion King” was lauded as clever and innovative. Now it feels dated and is frequently satirized for its one-dimensional look at sprawling Africa.

I don’t believe that “Aladdin” will suffer such a fate. Thanks to its timeless sound and lavish look, I predict it will carry its weight in gold for years to come. Never thought I’d be over the moon again about a Disney musical. Yet here I am, breathless, gushing, overjoyed.

THEATER REVIEW

“Aladdin”

Through Sept. 23. 8 p.m. Sept. 14; 2 and 8 p.m. Sept. 15; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sept. 16; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 18-20; 8 p.m. Sept. 21; 2 and 8 p.m. Sept. 22; 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sept. 23. $30.25-$115.25. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org.

Bottom line: Magnificent.



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