Thursday, December 7, 2023

Broadway tour of "Aladdin" at the Orpheum Theatre

The 1992 animated Disney movie Aladdin was adapted into a stage musical and opened on Broadway in 2014, where it's still running. The second national tour has made it to Minneapolis this week, and since I skipped it the first time around, I decided to check it out this time. It is, in the tradition of Disney musicals, a funny, sweet, entertaining spectacle of a show. Fabulous dancing, recognizable music, and some great performances (the real star of this show - Genie - does not disappoint) make for a fun and not too long show (under two and a half hours including intermission). I have some concerns about the casting choices, which you can read about at the end of this post. But first I'll share a few things I enjoyed about the show. Aladdin is in town through Sunday only - remember to only buy your tickets from the official site here, NOT from any of the third-party vendors that pop up first in a Google search.

Unlike its modern Disney movie predecessors The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast, I hadn't seen Aladdin in decades and don't know it very well. It's a fairly typical story, sweet but predictable - strong-willed princess stuck in a patriarchal system and charming but poor boy fall in love against all odds. But this show isn't as much about the story as it is about the music, dancing, and design. Highlights of the show include:
  • Marcus M. Martin
    (photo by Deen van Meer)
    As aforementioned, the star of this show is the Genie, and the big shoes you have to fill are not those of Robin Williams from the movie, but James Monroe Iglehart, who originated the role on Broadway and won the Tony. Marcus M. Martin does fill those big shoes - opening the show and popping out of that lamp with glee. He thoroughly engages the crowd, with some modern references from Baby Yoda to Wakanda, and leads the best song-and-dance numbers with great energy.
  • As our young couple in love, Adi Roy is a charming Aladdin, and Senzel Ahmady is a strong Jasmine. They share a sweet chemistry and some lovely moments on their duets.
  • The fun and familiar movie score by Disney regulars Alan Menken, Howard Ashman (who sadly died of AIDS at age 40 while working on this project), and Tim Rice, plus a few new songs cut from the movie or written for the stage, sounds great as played by the eight-piece pit orchestra conducted by James Dodgson, and sung by the huge and talented cast.
  • The show is helmed by Broadway director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw, who also directed and choreographed such hits as The Book of Mormon, The Prom, and most recently, Some Like It Hot (for which he won a Tony for choreographing the best tap-dancing chase seen I've ever seen). The dancing here is fast, fun, and hugely entertaining.
  • the golden cave (photo by Deen van Meer)
    The scenic design (by Bob Crowley) is full of theater magic. Most of the sets are accomplished with physical backdrops and charmingly simple set pieces, with the easy go-to of projections utilized only sparingly. An extravagant highlight is the gold-encrusted cave where Aladdin finds the Genie's lamp. It sparkles and glitters in an awe-inspiring way, with the help of lighting affects (designed by Natasha Katz). And of course, there is that flying magic carpet. Hard as I looked for support either under the carpet or hanging from the ceiling, I couldn't find it. I guess it was really (theater) magic!
  • The colorful Middle Eastern inspired costumes feature lots of harem pants, vests, and toned torsos, but my favorite is the lovely and "simple" dress that Jasmine wears to the market. There's a bit of theater magic happening in the costume design and changes too (costume design by Gregg Barnes).
And now to the disappointment of the show. I had assumed walking into the theater that this show would feature Arab American actors, but it turns out that is not the case. I'm not going to try to guess people's ethnicities from a name and a tiny headshot, but while some of the cast could be of Middle Eastern descent, most of them are not (read more about the casting controversy of the original cast here). A case could be made that this is a fictional world, the tale it's based on probably not even authentic to the region, so it doesn't matter. But when the opening song is "Arabian nights" and you're taking inspiration from Middle Eastern cultures, it feels like Arab American actors should be telling that story. I can't help but think of the 2018 Tony-winning musical The Band's Visit, with a cast (and band) that was made up largely of actors of Jewish and/or Middle Eastern descent, and how beautiful it was to see the authentic representation of those cultures on a Broadway stage (read this article by Ari'el Stachel about what it meant to play a "a three-dimensional, compassionate Middle Eastern character"). True, Aladdin isn't of the same artistic quality as The Band's Visit, but "colorblind casting" (as Disney insists they do) should be a thing of the past. Today we talk about "color conscious casting," in which you have to think about the story you're telling and how the people inhabiting the characters inform or influence that story (e.g., what story are you telling when the only Asian American actor in the cast plays the fool?). With all of the war and violence happening in the Middle East right now, the least we can do is tell their stories respectfully and authentically. Maybe I'm asking too much of a cartoon, but I think it matters.