Aladdin, the musical based on the 1992 animated film (which in turn was based on a story whose origins have been lost to the sands of time), is a cave of wonders. As with any cave of wonder, it offers treasure upon treasure: jokes, action, romance, wonder, glitter and magic. The touring production, onstage January 16th-21st thanks to Broadway Grand Rapids, seizes every opportunity to capture that magic.
Take the opening number. “Arabian Nights” opens with a promise: a promise to transport you to a faraway land, a land of silk, spice, and scimitars–a fantasy, in other words. Marcus M. Martin, as Genie, set the scene; in the song’s best moments, the chorus swelled to thrilling dimensions.
We’re quickly introduced to Aladdin (Adi Roy), a bright-eyed, hopeful young thief. In “One Jump Ahead,” a marvel of concision, he introduces us to his world: a world in which he’s always scrambling to stay “one swing ahead of the sword.” It could be bleak, but the bouncing melody, perfectly married to the witty lyrics, keeps it buoyant. Roy is great here, fully embodying the well-loved character.
It won’t be long before he meets Jasmine (Senzel Ahmady), the princess who has all the riches Aladdin could ever wish for and none of his freedom. She looks for agency–for the chance to make her own choices, and to marry someone she loves. Balsara’s mostly convincing, especially when falling for Aladdin, although her giggling can be distracting; fifty percent less of it would have been twice as effective.
The magic really kicks in when Aladdin enters the Cave of Wonders. Sound, lighting, projection, and practical effects combine to create a dangerous but tempting place filled with gleaming treasure. One of the finest treasures contained within it isn’t a jade necklace or a pile of golden coins but the genie, who, released from his lamp, proves bigger than life: a funny, energetic spirit made a little stir-crazy by thousands of years in solitary confinement. If Martin's performance doesn’t rival Robin Williams’, well, whose performance could?
The show pulls out all the stops for “Friend Like Me,” cramming in joke after joke and spectacle upon spectacle. Dancing girls offer old-fashioned glamor, but the clear star is Genie; it’s as if his joy at having finally escaped his prison has been manifested on the stage.
Great as that number is, “A Whole New World” is even better. Two people, a carpet, and some simple, effective magic: nothing else is needed–nothing but the song, that is, which quietly captures the way it feels to be young, in love, and yearning for the day you can build a life together. (When the song ended and Aladdin and Jasmine kissed, my eight-year-old daughter turned to me and said, “Save it for the wedding!” She might not be a romantic).
Songs not present in the film were added to the musical. The best of these is “High Adventure,” which, it surprised me not at all to learn, was co-written by Howard Asman, the brilliant songwriter whose lyrics were so key to Disney’s renaissance. I was surprised to learn Asman had a hand in “Proud of Your Boy,” which is too earnest by half.
“Too earnest by half” isn’t a complaint that can be made of the show overall. It moves quickly from scene to scene, scattering jokes along the way. Some land, and some don’t, but they keep it all lively, and provide a contrast for the real heart of the show: the moment the carpet rises against the glorious night sky.
Broadway Grand Rapids
DeVos Performance Hall