Tonight I saw Aladdin with the original Broadway cast at the amazing New Amsterdam Theatre. I hadn’t been there since seeing The Lion King in 2002, and I guess I forgot just how mammoth and grand the place is. My seat was in the front of the balcony and still pricey, but it didn’t keep me from experiencing some of the worst theatre etiquette ever. More on that later.
Aladdin is a very mixed bag on Broadway. Three completely superfluous sidekicks have been added for Aladdin, and they add nothing to the show but time and bad puns. Several new songs have been added, all without merit, save for the one song originally written for the film, “Proud of Your Boy.” The play suffers from expanding it out to two and a half hours with intermission, with the break placed at a particularly awkward moment. They perform condensed versions of these animated features as stage shows at the Disney theme parks and they last no more than twenty-five minutes. I’m not suggesting they do that on Broadway, but Aladdin should’ve been no longer than a hundred minutes with no break. I noticed people looking at the song list in their Playbills early in the show anticipating the intermission, and there were admittedly long stretches where the action dragged.
The audience breathed a loud sigh of relief whenever James Monroe Iglehart appeared as Genie, even though not all of his comedic asides landed with the audience. The sets are bright and bold, and there is a great deal of technical wizardry at play here. The magic carpet ride is a real wonder, though the sequence is so dark it is difficult to see all that much. The magic carpet appears again at the end and is brightly lit but no less magical. The Cave of Wonders is similarly impressive, though the head of the tiger speaks without moving his mouth. It was just odd.
The score from the film is performed very well by a talented cast, and they seem to be having a good time (the leads just signed a new contract for another year), but the whole affair comes across as product more than theatre. Any opportunities for depth, such as more about Aladdin’s dead mother or any of his feelings in general, are glossed over in favor of some quips and banter that isn’t funny. Not that the audience didn’t laugh, mind you, they did, but in a kind of knee-jerk test-the-reflexes way. They can tell by the tone and delivery that it is a joke and, by God, they spent a lot of money for their ticket so they are gonna get some laughs in. Aside from some gasps at some set changes (they are mighty impressive) and special effects (one had dancers shoot out of the floor through holes that sure seemed dangerous to me – maybe they get hazard pay?), the audience’s reactions were as false as most everything on stage. At least that is how it felt to me.
Adam Jacobs looks and sounds great in the title role, and Courtney Reed is similarly well suited to play Jasmine. If there is next to no chemistry between them on stage, I blame the writing. Some lines are from the film, but an awful lot are cliched rehashes of stuff we’ve heard before. The palace guards prance around with their hairy chests exposed and wearing large head pieces, looking a lot like the Pharisees in the 1973 film of Jesus Christ Superstar by Norman Jewison. Clifton Davis as Sultan has the most thankless part, as any personality found in the character in the animated film has been surgically removed for the stage regurgitation.
I’m not quite sure what kind of casting call was put out to fill the part of Iago, a wisecracking parrot in the film reborn as a short, round human dressed like a flamboyant Atilla the Hun, but Don Darryl Rivera does what he can and sometimes surpasses the stale material he is given. Still, I can only imagine it is a hard part to cast as he physically is so different than what one usually sees on stage.
Overlong with gorgeous costumes and sets but also infused with high fructose corn syrup, Aladdin is neither a complete failure nor a complete success. I left feeling more disappointed than angry over the $100 I spent on my cramped balcony seat, a sentiment shared by a couple I overheard discussing the show on the street as we exited. “Why those guys,” the woman asked her companion, referring to Aladdin’s superfluous sidekicks, “and why so long?”
And now for an aside about theatre etiquette… Having recently been to Walt Disney World and seeing how the audience can pretty much record and photograph anything, including the live stage shows, I think the audience at the New Amsterdam needs to be reminded that this is Broadway, not Florida. Cell phones were out for taking pictures throughout, and the ushers were slow to stop people from doing so. The woman next to me (old enough to know better) in D105 in the balcony (you know who you are!) was actually recording video of the show at key moments! I turned to glare at her, but she completely ignored me, as if she was the only person in the world. An usher finally came over to call to her to stop, but they couldn’t get her attention being that we were in the middle of the steep balcony. I then pointed over to the usher trying to flag her and said, “Honey, you can’t do that.” “REALLY?!?!” was her response, and she put her phone away in a huff, and then she was back to spouting laughs at the show as if nothing had happened within fifteen seconds.
I alerted an understanding usher at intermission and was reseated in the mezzanine for the second half of the show in a free standing seat, but people were still taking pictures down there as well! I doubt many of the pictures even came out (the “A Whole New World” sequence was a trigger for the cellphone crowd), but what is it with the pictures at inappropriate moments? Do ushers need to be more vigilant, in which case they only respond after the offending picture or video has been taken and a disruption already caused, or does a threatening announcement need to be made at the start of the show and the start of the second act? What does it say about our culture when people of all ages can’t stop texting and taking pictures for two and a half hours during a show that they must’ve paid good money to see? Why bother to go to a show just to ignore it and annoy everyone around you?