Sunday, April 27, 2014

Aladdin on Broadway

When the announcement was made that “Aladdin” was moving into the New Amsterdam Theater in New York City, our family knew we wanted to see the show. We had two main questions: 1) How did the Broadway version compare with the Hyperion Theater at California Adventure, and 2) How was the theater transformed from Number 17 Cherry Tree Lane to Agrabah.

2007: Ashley's first Broadway show was Mary Poppins,
in the same theater
I’ll answer the second question first because it is shorter. The theater was spruced up between shows, but the essence is the same. The stage was gutted between shows. For a while a giant hole existed. In the year between shows the theater held an awards show and a special Muppets performance. Olive the ghost was free to roam around. The 111-year old theatre maintained its early 20th century classic look. They did get a new curtain to tie in Agrabah.

We were the first people upstairs.
We had some fun posing in the wall of mirrors
Back to the first question: how does the Broadway version differ from the theme park version of the tale of Arabian Nights. The Broadway version is three times as long, plus a 15-minute intermission. They use that extra time to add in a back story and give Aladdin (Adam Jacobs) three male friends. The back story is that Aladdin’s mother died 2 ½ months ago, causing Aladdin to turn over a new leaf and become honest. As his friends Babkak (Brian Gonzales), Omar (Jonathan Schwartz), and Kassim (Brandon O’Neill) point out, he still doesn’t have any money. Aladdin makes exceptions for stealing food. He sings an amazing solo “Proud of Your Boy” to his dead mother, which was reprised twice.

As with the theme park and animated feature versions, the Genie steals the show. Instead of the storyteller, Genie (James Monroe Iglehart) opens the story and captures everyone’s attention from the first second. He has such a command of the theater. “A Friend like Me” is an 8½ minutes long showstopper, which has included a standing ovation at the end of each performance. Genie injects a bit of humor into the songs. For example during “Arabian Nights” song while describing Agrabah there is a line “where everyone has a minor in dance,” that is so appropriate as the ensemble dances their hearts out. That type of humor is sprinkled throughout the performance, along with amazing singing and dancing and 84 illusions and effects.

I was told by someone involved with the show Genie and Aladdin have permission to ad lib a little, and that it is even funnier when they do. Still, we missed the timeliness of the jokes told by Genie at the Hyperion Theater. My favorite example was the afternoon performance after the Disneyland Half Marathon. Genie jogs on stage huffing and puffing and declaring he is the final finisher of the race. Wearing my half marathon medal, I roared alongside the many others resting our tired feet in the air-conditioned theater.

The Broadway show includes the familiar songs “Arabian Nights,” “One Jump Ahead,” “Friend like Me,” “Prince Ali,” and “A Whole New World.” They also added a few songs to flesh out the story. We hoped Jasmine’s song about the bird inside a gilded cage would be one of the songs. The stage is set with a giant birdcage on it, as if to allude to the Hyperion Theater song. Instead she sings “These Palace Walls.” Another moment where the Broadway version seemed to play homage to California Adventure’s version was when Aladdin hands the bread he stole to an old beggar woman in a blue dress, like he does to Jasmine, during the “One Jump Ahead” song. Instead it takes three more songs before the couple meets and starts to fall in love.

On Broadway, Aladdin and Jasmine (Courtney Reed) have more time to get to know each other before falling in love. Jafar then uses his knowledge of their romance to convince Aladdin to go inside the Cave of Wonders. Incidentally, Jafar is played by Jonathan Freeman, the actor who provided the voice for Jafar in the animated movie. According to his Playbill bio, this is the first time that has ever happened. Also according to his bio, he was in Mary Poppins, which played in the same theater.

The second act was just as amazing as the first. It opens with “Prince Ali.” After the show I spoke with one of the members of the ensemble. He mentioned many of the men have four costume changes during that scene, he only has three. With a bit of “Disney magic,” his quickest costume change is 17 seconds long. During the “Prince Ali” number the cast seems to multiply before our eyes. Other fast costume changes take place on stage. Overall there are 337 costumes in the show – all hand-crafted by Tony Award winner, Gregg Barnes, using fabric from 9 different countries.

The magic carpet ride was really neat, but did not fly over the audience as it does in the Hyperion Theater. Since Mary Poppins flew over the audience, we expected the magic carpet would, too. It is an amazing feat in other ways. The cast also does not come through the theater, as they do during the “Prince Ali” number at the Hyperion Theater. Another big difference was that all cartoon aspects were taken out of the Broadway version. Iago, instead of being a puppet, is played by a man (Don Darryl Rivera). The magic carpet is just a carpet and not an acrobatic side kick. The Genie is a person. There are no puppets or animals in this production.

Unfortunately all good things have to come to an end. At 10:30 sharp the show ended and we followed everyone outside. All good theater-goers know to head to the stage door and hope for some autographs, after all they have to go home at some point, right? The cast of “Aladdin” were all amazing! Each one came out armed with a Sharpie pen and a winning personality. Each one walked from one end of the line of fans to the other, pausing to take pictures, sign autographs and answer questions. Then they left to go home and melded into the NYC crowd and anonymity. The crowd waiting was extremely polite and friendly, as well as patient. As the show is only two months old, the cast spent time after the show giving their friends backstage tours (lucky friends!). Even an hour after the show closed, they were still friendly with their fans. 

Aladdin: Adam Jacobs

Jasmine: Courtney Reed

Genie: James Monroe Iglehart

Each one is a class act.

It was a phenomenal experience overall.

Addendum: speculation for the next Broadway shows include "The Muppets" or "Frozen." Take that with a grain of salt as the former prediction was for "Peter Pan" or "Dumbo," and instead "Aladdin" became the next show.

Addendum 2: You can read the same post on DAPs Magic

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