Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Theatre Review: Aladdin

Disney’s Aladdin is currently in its final weeks of its pre-Broadway engagement at the Ed Mirvish theatre.  I enjoy that Toronto is often a test audience for Broadway bound adventures because it gives us a bit of a sneak peek and allows the production team to tweak and experiment with the material, hopefully perfecting it.

c/o West Midland Theatre of our cast
I believe, from what I have heard, that the production  I saw last evening has come a long way since it first opened in early November: what with several changes undertaken; but, at the core, I really think that this is the weakest of the Disney fare to date.  With the exception of The Little Mermaid, I have seen all of their theatrical adaptations so far and because each story is so inherently built into a musical format, I have never been disappointed. But, readers, Aladdin just doesn’t work.  From the beginning you know that there is something off: in the timbre, the cadence of the tale expressed in opening bars by a trio of Aladdin’s friends: Babcack, Haseem and Omar--- playing the comic relief in a show already filled with it--- straight to the first major chorus number of Arabian Nights: which seems flat, with the wrong tone, the wrong colours, a busy stage and a set that just tries so hard.  In fact, an early moment for the set: it is so elaborately crafted that they use several devices which block the audience from it in order to switch scenes.  There are no seamless transitions here. There is a cute use of “split screen” and several, SEVERAL filler moments where the curtain ( in complete Persian tapestry motif) separates the audience from the action and filler reprises of Arabian Nights propel the action forward.

This production breaks the Fourth Wall like nothing I have ever seen before. Ever.  And it is so tediously mundane.  How many reprises and bridges and musical overtures set to the Arabian Nights can one audience handle ….? Apparently a lot. 

The songs by Menken maintain their Disney flare; but the new additions (with the exception of Proud of Your Boy which I understand was cut from the movie ) seem to be shoved in. There’s a radically horrible duet between Jasmine and Aladdin on the rooftop of Agraba and an equally horrible declaration of Jasmine’s independence sung alongside her ladies’ maids which, if I had been musically stronger, may have recalled the scene with Megara in the animated Hercules.

Kids, the first act drags. Drags has nothing has ever dragged before and they are trying so evidently to cleverly transpose the animated action to the stage.  But, the story as told in its original Disney context, does not loan itself to stage. Its too ambitious.  The plot changes they have replaced to save themselves from having to technically undertake …oh I don’t know… a giant snake or Aladdin sinking to the bottom of the sea are replaced with awkward sword-fighting numbers and THIS IS TOO EASY moments where Aladdin just happens to leave his lamp lying around. For a clever and charming young street rat ( and, face it, Adam Jacobs is delightful in this role and just perfectly animated and wonderful: armed with a great voice, dancing impresario and the whitest teeth I have ever seen ) to just leave his last wish around just seems…. Amateur. Easy.

Jasmine. Guys Jasmine. Yawn. ( Courtney Reed)And I was kinda hoping since she was so forced and, well, yawn-worthy that she would bless us with a gorgeously sweet and chimed voice with the timbre and quality that Disney seems attracted to when casting heroines. Nope. Nothing to write home about. I am not sure if this is a technical imbalance or if Jasmine just couldn’t keep up but Jacobs unconsciously drowned her out.

I got off on a tangent; so back to how draggy the first act is. Draggy.  Then, THEN! In a Christmas miracle, the genie appears and saves the trainwreck from flying itself off of the rails.  In all of my 32 years of theatre-going ( this is supposing  I went to the theatre as a baby, which  I didn’t ) I have never, EVER seen one performer turn a show around and make it not only watchable but exciting in the way the Genie does (James Monroe Inglehart).  We can’t just credit the writing of the role, either; it is the pizzazz he infuses into every movement and charismatic gesture.  The Genie loves the roar of the applause and the audience loves him. Thus, “Friend Like Me” becomes the saving grace of a show so quickly sinking I was recalling my viewing of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s equally bland Wizard of Oz early this year.

Once Genie shows up with his pipes and his uncanny ability to move his broad build around the stage with surprisingly deft aplomb, I was given something to invest in. More still, the flat and dimensional and just too easy choreography that had everyone prancing around with their arms in triangles ( not unlike Jem practicing his walk like an Egyptian dance in To Kill a Mockingbird) was upgraded big time for an old-timey tap number complete with… COMPLETE with--- the most dazzling use of a self-aware Disney medley one has ever heard.

Genie brought the house down. Genie took the show and shoved it in his pocket and proved he is not only better than the material, he is so confidently comfortable as a performer he didn’t once try to emulate the great Robin Williams who vocally originated the  role. Sidenote for vocal origins: the gent who voiced Jafar in the movie plays Jafar here. Huh.

After intermission we are treated to a big Genie chorus number, Prince Ali, which is ---again --- salvaged mostly by the genie; but kudos to the elaborate costumes and the largest ensemble I have seen in a bit. Then the ante is technically upped by the miraculous feat of a flying carpet for the Whole New World scene.  This isn’t your mom’s Phantom of the Opera candle-boat, kiddy cats. This is one of the most impressive moments of stage brilliance, trickery and magic I have ever seen.  Jasmine is pitchy and boring; but darnit! Who cares, they are floating amidst the stars.

From there on in, you wait until the end when you know that the carpet will make an encore appearance ( why would they use that dazzling piece of magic just once ) and fall into one of the shoddiest plot denouements I have ever witnessed until the finale and the ultimate marriage and crowning of Aladdin as Sultan and the freeing of the Genie and all that.

Guys, Aladdin just doesn’t work.  It needs some major-re-writes. The production values are brilliant, the costumes, the cast ( for the most part) and often the staging are pure theatrical magic; but a show cannot ride on one outstanding Tony-calibre Genie performance and some cool magic carpet stuff.
I kept thinking about the Lord of the Rings musical : in all of its tedious and tawdry nonsense and how it seemed like SUCH a good idea and was so technically innovative but failed so greatly to tell any type of story.

I don’t know. I mean, I love Disney.. but this? This?

Toronto is exporting two things to Broadway in the New Year: Canadian Ramin Karimloo leading as Valjean in the revamped production of Les Miserables (just finishing its run here ) and Aladdin. Save your ticket money and invest in Les Miserables.

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