“I can show you the world; Shining, shimmering, splendid…” We may have thought that we stepped into Cadillac Palace Theatre on West Randolph in Chicago but our journey transported us much farther to the land of Agrabah where the folklore of “Arabian Nights” became an enchantment of sensory delights. Based on Disney’s 1992 animated film, Aladdin, the musical retells the story of a poor boy from the streets who falls in love with Princess Jasmine and is granted three wishes with the help of a magical Genie. Aladdin is a classic Disney movie from my childhood that highlights standard themes of romance, rags-to-riches, and a princess who finds her happily-ever-after ending. I was expecting a live reenactment of this plot line, but was refreshingly entertained with a show-stopping musical comedy that expanded beyond the original Disney film.
The lights dimmed and ominous trumpets declared the first notes of the overture as stringed instruments bellowed an atmosphere of suspense until the drums brought it down to a jazzy beat of the Genie’s “You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me.” Genie greeted the audience with a casual dialogue in a Cub’s hat from his “pre-show shopping” before introducing us to Agrabah’s marketplace.
The stage was exploding with colorful costumes, rotating buildings, and a large cast singing and dancing the “Arabian Nights.” I was completely captivated by the top-notch vocals, choreography, and acrobatic stunts throughout Aladdin the Musical that had the showy production quality of Broadway musical blockbusters like The Lion King and Wicked.
What I found most surprising about the Broadway production of Aladdin were the additional musical numbers not originally in the Disney film. Aladdin shares a deeper perspective to his character with the solo “Proud of Your Boy” promising his deceased mother that he will carry on her legacy and make a name for himself one day. While he no longer has a pet monkey, Abu, on his shoulder, we also get to meet his three best friends Babkak, Omar, and Kassim who bring a light-hearted bromance to the plot line by getting each other out of sticky situations like jumping from buildings to street carts and performing for spare change in the marketplace.
The Playbill program featured a story on the musical’s composer, Alan Menken, who also scored the Disney films Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. Menken stated that it had always been a dream of his to restore the telling of Aladdin as he had first envisioned it with the late Howard Ashman. The Disney filmmakers wanted more of a love story instead of what he had designed with the budding friendships of Aladdin, Genie, and his childhood pals on the road to adventure as he finds love along the way. This change in direction is clearly evident as my favorite character shifted from simply adoring Jasmine and her tiger in the palace courtyard when I was a little girl to Genie’s witty humor and sassy attitude stealing the show for me today. Menken also brought a range of musical numbers to Aladdin on Broadway in the style of old Hollywood comedy and 1940’s jazz greats like Fats Waller and Cab Calloway.
One of my favorite scenes is Aladdin’s first wish in the Cave of Wonders when Genie shows off a Broadway musical-theater medley in the middle of “Friend Like Me” with excerpts from “Beauty and the Beast” and “The Little Mermaid,” to Broadway classics such as “West Side Story, “A Chorus Line,” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” Of course, the ensemble is also changing costumes and choreography along with the Genie from tap dancing and jazz hands to Latin partnering, thanks to the brilliance of Casey Nicholaw who also choreographed The Book of Mormon.
All the pizzazz and procession of performers in Prince Ali’s parade was contrasted with a rippling sigh from the audience when the couple softly floated above the stage on a magic carpet ride. Twinkling stars and smooth waves encompassed the space as Jasmine and Aladdin sang the famous ballad “A Whole New World,” transporting us to the wonders of this magical land.
I appreciated the nature of Aladdin the Musical’s colorful retelling of the Disney film while retaining some of the classic Disney qualities an audience expects to see. We still had the budding romance of Jasmine and Aladdin just as the villian, Jafar, and his parrot-like henchman, Iago, attempted to destroy them in a battle of good verses evil.
What made this musical so memorable to me was how they expanded upon the thin cast of lead characters to put greater emphasis on full cast dance numbers that overflowed with enthusiasm. It was nice to have a little comic relief and I found myself literally belly-laughing to Genie’s jokes and Iago’s side commentary. Jasmine’s character was stronger than what I remember in the Disney film with her solo “These Palace Walls” when she yearns for more freedom in her life and feeling empowered to make her own choices. At one point, she asks her father why a queen cannot rule alone and the actors’ lines paused as the Chicago audience cheered. In this current era of Islamic-phobia and the war on terrorism, I also found it refreshing to see a musical celebrating the beauty and glamour of Arab culture along with a cast of diverse ethnic backgrounds. This was not your typical Disney princess fairy tale of long golden hair and a snowy white complexion.
Aladdin the Musical may have been the best Broadway production that I have ever seen. Aladdin first debuted on Broadway in 2014 but began it’s national tour this month in Chicago. I would see it again in a heartbeat and enjoy the splendor of it all over again.
While we were unable to sit together, our seats were only tens rows away for a very affordable rate. We bought our Broadway tickets the day before on Ticketmaster to a sold-out show and parked a block away using an app called ParkWhiz to reserve our space.
It was the perfect ending of a fabulous two weeks together before Derek flew back to work; only topped off with a round of mini golf at Lost Mountain in his former town of residence in Woodridge, IL.
Derek surprised me with a copy of the Aladdin Broadway cast’s soundtrack that I listened to the whole way home. Here’s to another great show that we experienced in the world of Broadway musicals…Aladdin!