Last night, I had the opportunity to attend the world premiere, opening night performance of Disney’s new stage musical based on the animated film Aladdin. It’s the first time I’ve been able to see one of the first-run musicals at the 5th Avenue Theatre here in Seattle – they actually have a long history of launching shows to Broadway (Shrek, Catch Me if You Can, and Memphis to name a few recent projects.)
Now, the soundtrack to Aladdin was one of my first-ever CDs that I owned. It came out right in that sweet spot in the mid-90s while I was in high school, and unlike some other Disney films its sense of humor and action appealed to both genders, lending to memories like my Forensics team loudly singing through the soundtrack on an evening weekend bus ride home from a debate tournament. The music is very sentimental for me, and hearing the swells of the well-known themes in the overture was energizing all on its own.
My general impression of the musical version? It has potential. Especially as a working actor, one hardly expects the first performance of a new musical to be perfect. Even from my own limited experience, I remember working on the world premiere of a show (“Nietzsche! The Musical”; it was awesome) and finding that the opening and closing numbers weren’t complete until a week or so before we opened. The opening number was the last thing we learned and was within a week of opening. I can only imagine how many situations like that a cast like this runs into, with so much on the line. But there’s work to be done. Some of the changes haven’t gelled yet, and there are some strange shortfalls in specific technical elements.
And this is where some of the musical spoilers begin, so tread further if you dare. (It’s strange how much acting blogging I’ve been doing lately, but I expect things will change very soon as I move into a new design phase at work.)
Before I go further, I want to note that we really did enjoy the show and the performances – the actors were all clearly fully invested and giving everything they could. And I also can imagine how hard working on a new musical of this scale must be; a massive, massive undertaking with only 5-6 weeks of rehearsal and only 1.5 weeks onstage (as mentioned by their Artistic Director in a curtain speech.) And the audience clearly LOVED the show in general. But they do have work they need to do if they want to get it to Tony-quality Disney standards.
The first thing my friend and I noticed was how SPARKLY the show was. The costumes, especially in palace sequences, were just gorgeous, nearly to the point of distraction. Just beautiful to look at.
The set was comparatively… underwhelming at times. They made clever use of mobile set pieces during Aladdin’s first chase scene to set up a number of tableaus and the illusion of a vast city, but I found the scale of many of the set designs a bit off. Vast, unmarked backdrops with short mobile set pieces, etc. There were also set malfunctions – in one number, a pretty curtain of gold foil streamers got caught on the dancers, creating a dangerous situation. And the main curtain got caught on the city set pieces, requiring uncostumed techs to come fix it during a set change. They made heavy use of paperdoll style projections during scene transitions, and I found myself wishing the projections were much larger in size. They were well done and fun to watch but only took up a small fraction of the space available.
The actors were all very skilled, as you’d expect from the 5th, with beautiful voices from Aladdin and Jasmine. Aladdin’s new ballad in the first act seems like it’ll be a timeless tearjerker of a song. I thought it strange that Jasmine didn’t really have a ballad of her own; she does have a comedic song but I’d like to see a bit more character development for her. (Especially since they inevitably want to drive the Princess set to come see the show.) And it’s certainly awesome that they have the man who did the original voice of Jafar playing the role here – he does indeed have a natural evil cackle. I loved hearing the reactions from kids around us at key moments between Jasmine and Aladdin or Jafar.
This is a show that lives and dies on humor — there is a lot of comedy in this show. Almost offputting in places, until I remembered that the original movie WAS very 4th-wall, in your face humor thanks to the Genie. But I’d still like to see them pull back and let the laughs come a little more naturally for other characters, and perhaps make some of the references a bit more timeless. For one or two of the actors, it seemed comedy might not be their strong suit, or maybe opening night jitters or tech issues affected some of the timing. (This was not an issue for Iago, who is an entirely comic role but adorable doing it.) Regardless, there were plenty of laughs and some places where they caught me pleasantly off-guard.
Musically, some of the arrangements were as lush as you could ask for. And then, at times, they dropped to a single synthesizer or piano – as if the arrangements weren’t completed in time. I love the sound of a full orchestra, and when you have one I hardly think you’d intentionally drop them in places, so this felt like a completion issue (and the move to piano didn’t really aid in the storytelling as if it were intentional.) There were also a number of places where I expected more sound effects or fanfare, like Jafar’s spellcasting or some of the Genie summonings.
The biggest change was the addition of three male characters to replace the original narrator. They handled scene transitions with narrative songs, some of which were quite good, but they were also inserted into the plot as Aladdin’s friends and… bandmates. WTF?? There’s also a subtle but crucial change in how Aladdin is portrayed in the opening sequence that my friend and I both took issue with; it seems against the spirit of the original character.
Maybe it’s because the last show at the 5th was Guys and Dolls – where they have a trio of seminarrative males – that this felt a little too contrived as a plot device. Personally, I think they need to be reduced in the story, though they have one or two awesome numbers in the 2nd act that should stay. As a female actress, I’d love to see them perhaps give more to Jasmine’s ladies in waiting, who only get one song as support – it’d be interesting to have the girls tell part of the story to balance the almost-overkill presence of the male narrator trio.
Lastly, there are some spots where the movie’s spectacle overshadows what they were able to accomplish onstage. Flying carpets are one such area – the scene here not even matching the theme park version of the show in complexity. I think they can weather that storm, but they need fog or some other clever way to hide the massive support pillar for the flying carpet.
The biggest shortcoming for me was the final conflict with Jafar. You all remember that. He turned into a giant snake before making his final, doomed wish. Well, there’s no snake – not anything close. The final conflict ends up being ALMOST laughably cheesy, but not quite. They’ve got to nail this – and they really need to remove the joke that calls into the question the validity of the plot afterwards. Don’t make the audience question the money they just spent or make the audience feel stupid for getting swept up in the story.
There you have it: my review of the Aladdin opening night. I’m fascinated to hear from friends how and if it changes during the run, and if it makes the inevitable leap to Broadway I’ll be curious to hear about even further changes. I was glad of the opportunity to see a little page of stage history being written – whether you like Disney or not, you can’t deny their influence on Broadway and beyond over the years. It’s a rare opportunity to see that where it starts.
If you want more information, you probably want to visit the 5th Avenue Theatre’s Facebook page. Even now, some of the comments on posts reveal interesting tidbits about what went right and wrong last night (like a missing set piece causing some funny improv.)