In the UK, there is a Christmas tradition in British theatre called Pantomime. This phenomenon is foreign to American audiences, and is perhaps difficult to sell convincingly, but here goes: A pantomime takes the form of a tongue-in-cheek staging of a popular fairy tale, which encourages as much audience participation as possible. There is always a man dressed up as a ludicrous-looking woman known as the Dame (in the case of 'Aladdin' it's Widow Twanky), often a girl will play the lead male role (such as Peter Pan... Yes, it's all very gender-confusing) and a 'Dr. Evil-style' villain (who is constantly booed out of the building by the children in the audience, whenever he creeps onto the stage). There are also a few filthy jokes thrown into the mix, which fly straight over the childrens' heads and cheekily reward their accompanying parents. In short, the pantomime is a theatrical tradition that is belittled by theatre snobs, but wholeheartedly loved by families and secret 'guilty pleasure-seeking' theatregoers.
Although pantomime is relatively unknown in the States, having recently attended a performance of Disney's latest mega-hit 'Aladdin,' I feel it is the closest thing to it in the good ole U S of A. Particularly the performance of Jonathan Freeman as treacherous Jafar (a role he reprises from voicing the character in the original 1992 animated film) reminded me of the old-school pantomime villain. Alas, there was no sign of boisterous booing from the audience...
The musical, whilst perhaps not as creatively imaginative as Disney's standard barer 'The Lion King,' it certainly gets more laughs and the book's wise-cracking one-liners, often Arabian-themed, lend some refreshing, adult satisfaction. Most of these come from the show-stealing performance of James Monroe Iglehart as Genie, whose Tony Award-winning turn is truly a delight to behold. Stepping into the shoes of the late great Robin Williams (surely one of the main reasons, the animated classic was so popular) must be daunting at the least, but Iglehart gives a new and unique life to the character, whilst maintaining Mr Williams' high levels of energy and pace. His tour-de-force number 'Friend Like Me,' simply put, is musical theatre heaven! He is also quite the accomplished dancer and as light on his feet as the rest of the ensemble.
Other comic relief comes in the form of Iago (a conniving parrot sidekick in the movie, now embodied as a short and stout human by Don Darryl Rivera), whose hilarious portrayal is a masterclass of comic timing. Three new additions to the cast are Aladdin's three, loyal buddies - Babkak, Omar and Kassim (Brian Gonzales, Jonathan Schwartz and Steel Burkhardt respectively) - who replace cheeky and loveable animated monkey Abu (although he does makes a cameo appearance on a poster in Act II!). These three amigos each have rounded characters and perform their comic sequences with vigour.
The costumes and sets are wonderfully bright and make the production the most vibrantly colourful of all Disney Theatrical's offerings to date. Hats off to the ensemble members who undergo several quick (and magnificent) costume changes during the procession within the single musical number of 'Prince Ali'!
Finally, the performances of Adam Jacobs as Aladdin and Courtney Reed as Princess Jasmine, although overshadowed by Iglehart, shine especially during their musical numbers. Particular favourites are the duet 'A Million Miles Away' and Aladdin's recurring solo 'Proud of Your Boy,' which both add some much needed character depth and showcase each actors' beautiful vocals. And of course, who can resist being swept along by the extremely impressive magic carpet scene during 'A Whole New World'?
As I left the stunning New Amsterdam Theatre, I heard a child asking her mother: "How do they make that carpet fly, Mummy?" Her simple reply: "That's Disney magic!" I couldn't have said it better myself.
(Photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
"The production’s relentless razzle-dazzle and its anything-for-a-laugh spirit also infuse the show with a winking suggestion: If you can’t be yourself, just be fabulous."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times
"The production’s best special effect isn’t the carpet, but the rollicking and endearingly over-the-top turn by James Monroe Iglehart ('Memphis'), who handles Robin Williams’ role as the genie. With nonstop joking, fist bumps, declarations of 'Oh snap!' and nimble dance moves and smooth vocals, Iglehart shines with enough charisma to light a thousand and one nights."
Joe Dziemianowicz for New York Daily News
"Disney’s new 'Aladdin' doesn’t quite catch lightning in a bottle — but it lets a pretty nifty genie out of a lamp."
Elisabeth Vincentelli for New York Post
"For a child who's never seen a show before, the bright colors and broad silliness might be fun, but their adults will likely find it a teeth-grinding experience (although many dads will be diverted by Princess Jasmine's plunging necklines)."
Robert Feldberg for The Record
"This is a wonderful adaptation filled with color, charm and loads of theatrical magic."
Roma Torre for NY1
"The magic carpet flies smoothly and so does the rest of 'Aladdin', a buoyant musical comedy fashioned from the 1992 Disney animated feature."
Michael Sommers for Newsroom Jersey
"While it doesn't rival the imagination or innovation of 'The Lion King', the show's ebullient comic spirit should make it a popular hit."
David Rooney for The Hollywood Reporter
"Casey Nicholaw... stylistically turns the film’s romantic fairy-tale adventure into shtick comedy."
Marilyn Stasio for Variety
External links to full reviews from popular press...