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Aisle View: Brass Lamp Turns Gold

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It is untoward and beside the point to compare Aladdin and Rocky; Aladdin being the new Disney musical based on the widely celebrated 1992 animated film about the poor slub from the streets of Agrabah who thanks to a highly unlikely circumstance finds himself in a battle for the Sultan's crown and gets the girl, Rocky being the new Stallone musical based on the widely celebrated 1976 boxing film about the poor slub from the streets of Philly who thanks to a highly unlikely circumstance finds himself in a battle for the heavyweight crown and gets the girl.

But Aladdin and Rocky have opened on Broadway back-to-back; the critics have seen them back-to-back; and, more crucially, early audiences who generate all-important word-of-mouth will see them back to back. While the subject matter seems to place the shows in different categories, they both appeal to the mass audience who grew up with the two films as cultural landmarks. Both shows similarly seem to exist on Broadway mainly to recreate the high spots of their respective originals--and both do, in fact, succeed in capitalizing on those sequences.

While comparisons are in some circles odious, the Disney people won't mind because Aladdin comes out ahead by a considerable margin. The musical at the New Amsterdam is not perfect; another Lion King this isn't. Still, it provides three or four knockout moments, compared to only one situated at the tail end of the pugilistic piece.

Aladdin begins with an actor named James Monroe Iglehart--despite his presidential name, he was the plus-size comic in Memphis--welcoming us to the world of "Arabian Nights." Iglehart's Genie seems, from the first, a character we would be happy to spend an evening's entertainment with. He is nevertheless immediately sent back to his dressing room, where he presumably gorges on carbohydrates and energy drinks--or pizza and pastries--for almost the entire first act.

Iglehart springs back into view shortly before intermission with a little item called "Friend Like Me," which turns into an insanely glitzy production number that packs all the punch of Beauty and the Beast's "Be Our Guest" and Hello, Dolly's title song combined. It is one of the most delirious things of its kind in years, and director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw deserves a tip of the sequined hat. "Friend Like Me" more than atones for the six preceding musical numbers, which are only moderately entertaining in a generic, pseudo-Arabian manner.

After repairing to his dressing room and presumably an awaiting oxygen-tank, Iglehart returns for more of the same in Act Two; not only singing and dancing, but creating a full-fledged comic portrayal as well. The most difficult item for the creators of Aladdin to replicate on stage, surely, was the film's big blue Genie with the voice of Robin Williams. Fortunately they gambled on the little-known Iglehart, and he does for Aladdin more or less what Nathan Lane did for The Producers.

The second act manages to sustain itself even when its Genie is taking a breather. "A Whole New World," delivered on a moonlit magic carpet ride over the turreted city, turns out to be a lovely interval thanks to the song, the singers, the lush orchestration, and the stage images from designers Bob Crowley (sets) and Natasha Katz (lights). Elsewhere, the three comic sidekicks--who are not all that funny in Act One--come into their own in the latter stages of the story.

But it is Iglehart's show; he takes full advantage of the material and the opportunity, and I suppose Disney realizes that this brass-lamp genie is worth his weight in gold. Adam Jacobs makes an ingratiating Aladdin, with a friendly manner and the widest teeth on Broadway since we last spotted Donny Osmond. Courtney Reed doesn't make much of an impression as the heroine Jasmine--she seems neither "Arabian" nor feisty. Jonathan Freeman ably fills the role of the villainous Jafar; he seems like a walking counterpart of the film character, which he more or less is (having voiced the role in the film). Adding a touch of class, in the role of the Sultan, is veteran Clifton Davis, who back in 1971 starred in Joe Papp's rollicking Two Gentlemen of Verona.

As with most Disney stage adaptations, the score is padded with new and originally-deleted songs that fill out--but don't enhance--the show. In this case, composer Alan Menken worked with Chad Beguelin, the up-and-coming lyricist/librettist from The Wedding Singer and Elf. (Some of the original lyrics are by Howard Ashman, the others by Tim Rice.) Beguelin's book is filled with sitcom-easy jokes, some of which are a stretch. (Man: I'm gonna be stinking rich! Other Man: You're already halfway there!) And there are myriad food gags. (Man: It's not right to bully! Other Man: Did somebody say tabouleh?) But then, might it not be profitable for a Disney family musical to be filled with sitcom-easy jokes?

Director/choreographer Nicholaw (of Book of Mormon) is one of Broadway's top musical comedy guys nowadays, as demonstrated by "Friend Like Me." The rest of his first act, though, seems restrained and merely atmospheric. The scenery by Bob Crowley is effective, but without the extra-special touch he has brought to various projects in the past (including Mary Poppins and this season's Glass Menagerie). The always-expert Natasha Katz creates magical images with her lighting, while Gregg Barnes (of Follies and Kinky Boots) outdoes himself with costumes that bring new meaning to the word resplendent. The sound, though, is so over-amplified that it obscures what are probably first-rate orchestrations by Danny Troob.

Score Aladdin a considerable win for Disney, likely to fill the New Amsterdam with happy crowds for seasons to come. Better than Little Mermaid, Aida and Tarzan, though not exactly a knockout.