While a musical stage adaptation of a Disney film is far from an innovative concept, Disney’s “Aladdin” defies all expectations. “Aladdin” will play at the SHN Orpheum Theatre with the North American touring company through Jan. 7 — the musical interpretation successfully breathes new life into the beloved animated film. The result: a true testament to the magic of its theatrics and the talent of its cast.
The sole “Disney princess” story not led by a princess, “Aladdin” tells the story of the titular “street rat” (Adam Jacobs, the role’s originator on Broadway) who befriends a genie (Anthony Murphy) and uses his three wishes and magic carpet to woo Princess Jasmine (Isabelle McCalla). Jacobs embodies the charisma and charm demanded by the role, unquestioningly delightful even in his character’s more reprehensible actions.
An important note: The story has been fairly critiqued for its tired Orientalism and its usage of stereotypes to depict the Middle East, moreso for the animated film than the musical. The musical’s emphasis that Agrabah is a fictional city does not eschew it of all culpability for its perpetuation of Orientalism; it should be held accountable for its Western amalgamation of the unique cultures within the Middle East and problematic stereotypes.
While these factors are not to be dismissed, the musical’s message itself is never harmful or denigrating in intent. At its core, “Aladdin” is a celebration of friendship, adventure and the magic that makes it possible.
Through the score by Alan Menken (1982’s “Little Shop of Horrors,” 1997’s “Hercules”), the musical is a love letter to classic Broadway. Menken not only expands upon the seven songs of the original motion picture, but also adds songs reminiscent of classic musical tropes — the adventure sought by a pack of good-hearted but un-sharp buddies (“High Adventure”), the leading lady’s longing for something more (“These Palace Walls”) and the empowerment of a makeover (sung by Aladdin in “Act One Finale,” a refreshing play with the trope’s typical gender roles).
Though such songs have been used and abused and lampooned to no end since Broadway’s creation, Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin remain true to the tropes’ respective emotional cores, brilliantly utilizing humor to prevent cliché.
Even while the humor of the 1992 film is somewhat memorable, the musical provides nonstop, genuine laughter, as McCalla promised in an interview with The Daily Californian. Its unabashed silliness and self-mockery is delightful, masterfully breaking the fourth wall without crossing into annoying self-deprecation. As further described by McCalla, the musical’s Jasmine expands upon the feminism of her animated counterpart — this manifested in the crowd’s applause after the intentionally politically charged delivery of her line, “Why shouldn’t a woman run the kingdom?”
Almost like a Disneyland ride, each set change took the audience further into Aladdin’s world. Especially remarkable was the decadent set of the Cave of Wonders, which covered every inch of the stage in shiny, glittering gold. Eighty-four special effects, including live pyrotechnics, occur during the show — each greeted by the audience’s surprised cheers and gasps. The musical is an immersive and all-consuming experience; an audience member’s eye is constantly caught by the unexpected costume change, impossible prop appearance or shine of a set piece.
In the musical number “Friend Like Me” alone, 8,644 Swarovski rhinestones appear on each man’s gold costume (after the number’s final costume change). As he sings, the immensely talented Murphy jumps and parades around the stage as the Genie with an exuberance he somehow maintains at its most extreme level throughout the musical.
The jaw-dropping number, expanded to three times the length of the film’s original song, highlights Murphy’s astonishing acoustic talent as he tackles several other Disney classic tunes, including “Beauty and the Beast” and “Under the Sea,” to the reception of a raving crowd. All the more, the number’s seemingly impossible accomplishments in costuming and props are astonishingly divine, but still only one manifestation of the creative team’s ingenuity. The choreography throughout the number — and musical itself — is sharp, stunning and sensational.
The only moment more awe-inspiring is the breathtaking carpet ride of “A Whole New World.” Aladdin and Jasmine appear to inexplicably, truly fly across the stage in every direction while riding the carpet, defying all known limits of gravity and set design. The lighting, in tandem, provokes an intense, chills-inducing and heartwarming overall emotional response.
As they soared, the musical cemented its place as a true testament to the magic of technical theater and the power of added theatrics as a tool to augment storytelling.
Caroline Smith covers theater. Contact her at [email protected].