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Here's the Rub: 'Aladdin' a Terrific Touring Production of a Fun But Not Quite "Genie-us" Musical -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a Disney musical
First National Tour
Cadillac Palace, Chicago
Thru Sept. 10

I remember the 1992 Disney animated movie, Aladdin--based on an age-old Middle Eastern folk tale--being a great vehicle for the manic genius of the late, great Robin Williams.

Though I saw it once, or perhaps twice, way back when--which is more than I can say about Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King before they were adapted into stage musicals--I couldn't recall any particular music in Aladdin, not even "A Whole New World," which I guess was something of a hit.

Still, I certainly appreciate the talents of composer Alan Menken, his lyrical partner Howard Ashman, and Tim Rice, who wrote additional lyrics for the movie and now the musical after Ashman's death in 1991. Chad Beguelin, who penned the musical's book, also added some lyrics.

Following a few years of development and out-of-town tryouts, Aladdin opened on Broadway in 2014 to decent but not scintillating reviews. It was nominated for five Tony Awards, with James Monroe Iglehart winning for playing the genie. The show continues to run rather successfully in New York, and Tuesday night it began its First National Tour in Chicago. 

Photos from Aladdin on Broadway
I was in attendance and will fairly note that it was likely officially a "preview" performance. 

All of the above is meant to connote that--while excited for Broadway in Chicago to provide a new, fresh-from-NYC title, and impressed that Aladdin is booked at the Cadillac Palace until September--I didn't enter with any palpable affinity, other than a bit of wistfulness for Robin Williams and some crash Spotifamiliarization with the Original Cast Recording

And my enjoyment of the musical--considerable but not overwhelming--pretty much aligns with my moderate expectations. 

Appreciably, well before Williams took his life in August 2014, Disney and the creative talent responsible for the theatrical adaptation realized that there is likely no one alive capable of imbuing Aladdin's genie with the same type of madcap brilliance. 

Instead, sizable, bald, vivacious African-American men--Iglehart originally on Broadway, Anthony Murphy on tour in Chicago--have embodied the genie with considerable sass and charm, and abundant talent in their own right, but not nearly Williams' kaleidoscopic points of humorous reference. 

Being the first night of a national tour, hewing closely to the script was certainly understandable, but it seemed well within Murphy's wheelhouse to break the fourth wall and extemporaneously ad lib a bit--about the Cubs, the current president, the United passenger-dragging debacle, etc.--and I think Aladdin could well benefit from this in appealing to adults as much as kids (as I believe the film largely achieved). 

As it stands, the clearly well-funded show features excellent scenery--designed by Bob Crowley--and top talent, led by Murphy and Adam Jacobs, who reprises the title role he originated on Broadway. 

Per the evolving story of Aladdin coming to find the lamp containing the genie--at the cajoling of the evil Jafar (an excellent Jonathan Weir)--after the fine opening number ("Arabian Nights") Murphy is off-stage for the musical's first hour, and largely missed. 

Jacobs has an excellent voice showcased early on "One Jump Ahead" and "Proud of Your Boy," and makes for an affable presence as the poor-but-resourceful local who pursues the beautiful Princess Jasmine (Isabelle McCalla). 

But it is only when the genie reappears to deliver the show's one truly sensational production number--"A Friend Like Me"--that the whole enterprise really comes alive. 

The show continues to be impressively staged and sung throughout, with "A Whole New World" being a fine Aladdin/Jasmine duet early in Act II, and Zach Bencal, Philippe Arroyo and Mike Longo providing nice comic relief as Aladdin's pals, Babkak, Omar and Kassim.

I didn't see Aladdin on Broadway, but this seems to be a clearly superb rendition of the source material, with Broadway director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw at the helm and beautiful costuming by Gregg Barnes.

As demonstrated numerous times throughout their esteemed careers, Menken, Ashman, Rice and Beguelin obviously know how to write quality songs and to Aladdin's credit, there was never a point in the 2-1/2 hour show where I didn't feel impressively entertained. 

But while Aladdin is a good musical, it isn't a great one. I never managed much of an emotional investment, at times thought there was too much onstage commotion and didn't leave humming any songs. 

Although not everything it does appeals to everybody, Disney remains one of the world's premier entertainment companies, and its forays into live theater have been estimable.  
The Lion King is truly brilliant, while Beauty and the Beast and Mary Poppins are excellent musicals. (I haven't seen The Little Mermaid or Tarzan.)

Aladdin isn't quite on that level, but like Newsies and Aida, it is sumptuously presented and makes for an unabashedly solid--and imaginably for some, particularly kids getting indoctrinated to live theater, truly delectable--night of quality entertainment. 

Sometimes that is all you can wish for.

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