Stage Door Review 2024


Friday, February 23, 2024


music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice & Chad Beguelin, book by Chad Beguelin, directed by Casey Nicholaw

Disney Theatrical Productions, Princess of Wales Theatre, Toronto

February 21-March 17, 2024

“It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home” (from “Arabian Nights”, Aladdin, Act 1)

Disney’s stage musical Aladdin last played Toronto in 2013-14. Now it’s back while in New York the show will be celebrating its 10th year on Broadway on March 20. When I reviewed the show in 2013, I said the director and producers had to decide whether it was a kiddie show or a fantasy show for adults. On the evidence of the version now playing at the Princess of Wales Theatre, they have decided it is a kiddie show that could easily be a panto if only they encouraged audience interaction. The acting is so broad and the action so filled with slapstick that anyone looking for a poignant depiction of emotions that one might find in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1993), had better look elsewhere.

The musical is based on the 1992 animated movie of the same name. The movie was controversial for its Orientalism and its depiction of racial stereotypes. When it was added to the Disney Plus channel it received the disclaimer, “This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures”. When the stage musical of the movie opened on Broadway, it received criticism from the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (AAADC) that no one is the cast was of Middle Eastern descent.

In 2013 the cast, except for the Genie, was almost entirely White. At least, Adam Jacobs, who created the title role, was half Filipino. In 2024 the look of the cast is much more diverse with BIPOC performers seeming to outnumber the non-BIPOC performers. The AAADC’s complaint, however, is still not answered. Aladdin (Adi Roy), Jafar (Anand Nagraj) and the Sultan (Sorab Wadia) are of South Asian descent. Jasmine (Senzel Ahmady) is half Filipina, half Afghan, and Iago (Aaron Choi) is Korean). People who complain about the term BIPOC note that the “POC” (person of colour) lumps all sorts of ethnically unrelated people together as if they were interchangeable.

The creators of the musical may have thought that reserving the role of the Genie for an African-American performer was a good thing, but in this they show a lack of knowledge about the Middle East that so evident all through the show. If the story involved a White boy whose spirit servant was Black and called him “Master”, Americans would be outraged. Well then, why not here where the boy is an Arab and his servant is Black? Americans focus so much on themselves they tend not know that it was the Arabs who turned the trade in African people as slaves into a business and controlled the slave trade between Eastern Africa and Asia. Thus, even though the role of the Genie is the most entertaining role in the musical, the character still falls into the trope that film director Spike Lee termed “the magical Negro”, i.e., a Black person who will do anything to save a White person.

Given the any-POC-will-do casting plus “the magical Negro” problem built into the stage version, it is clear that the musical is intended for people who don’t know, and don’t want to know, anything substantial about the Middle East. But how much “fun” should come from encouraging ignorance. As I noted in my 2014 review, “The opening song “Arabian Nights”, [introduces] us to an Arabia that is a compendium of every hokey Hollywood cliché about Muslim countries from old movies like The Sheik (1921) to Road to Morocco (1942), Lost in a Harem (1944) and Kismet (1955). This is a fictional place where women wear belly-dancing outfits on the street, bare-chested guards wield enormous scimitars and merchants are free to behand thieves for stealing without recourse to judges. Even Princess Jasmine walks about the palace in a harem outfit. Don’t look for any sort of social realism. There’s not a veil, hijab, niqab much less a burqa in sight”. There are minarets in the skyline but never one of the five calls to prayer. And the song introducing “Prince Ali” even admonished people, ““Now, try your best to stay calm / Brush up your Sunday salaam” not even aware, apparently, that Friday is the holy day for Muslims.

The physical production of Aladdin is the same as we saw in 2013 with the same fantastic scenic designs by Bob Crowley, with the glittering Cave of Wonders being a special triumph. Gregg Barnes’s costumes are a real mishmash of styles. The guards look like Russian Cossacks, the Sultan looks like an Indian raja, Jasmin dresses like a harem girl in the palace (although there is no harem) and her friends wear long European gowns and heels. Women on the street could be gypsies from the cast of Carmen. The only character who wears a thobe, the most common item of Arabian men’s clothing, is the evil Jafar. The costume design reinforces the negative view of the musical as Orientalist since the hodgepodge is chosen simply because they look exotic from a Euro-American point of view.

The mixture of costume styles is matched by a mixture of dance styles. Casey Nicholaw, the director and choreographer, has the Arabian inhabitants of the fictional city of Agrabah perform Greek and Israeli circle dances, Latin dances such as the tango, dances based on Egyptian painting featuring much wrist extension from vertical forearms and a good helping of Indian bhangra. The most enjoyable but most anachronist scene is the big 1930s-style tap dance number to “Friend Like Me”.

The main flaw of the current production of Aladdin is the cast’s unusual lack of singing ability. Everyone does quite well in speaking their lines, though Anand Nagraj with his big resonant voice seems to be trying for a record in how far over the top he can play Jafar, and Nagraj is not high-jumping but pole-vaulting. In singing, though, which one might assume essential to being in a musical, all the principals commit the same error. They sing the refrain clearly which often contains the song’s title, but the verses in between are so underpowered and so poorly articulated that you have no idea what they are. As Aladdin, Adi Roy may hold out his notes in his main song “Proud of Your Boy”, but what he sings to reach that conclusion is totally unclear. We know that Senzel Ahmady as Jasmine wants to “Break These Palace Walls” but the verses that explain her view are mush. As the Genie, Marcus M. Martin tells Aladdin why he is lucky to have a “Friend Like Me”, but the list of what the Genie can do comes over as a muddle. The same flaw is even true of the chorus in general. They might introduce us to “Arabian Nights” at the top of the show but what those nights comprise is unintelligible.

The main exception to this pattern is Aladdin’s three friends Babkak, Omar and Kassim. As it happens, on opening night all three were played by the understudies for those roles – namely J. Andrew Speas, Kyle Caress and Brandon Burks, respectively. Their singing as a group and individually was clearer than that of any of the principals. Brandon Burks especially stood out among the entire cast for the strength of his voice and for excellence of his diction.

The characters are all drawn as simple sketches. Exacerbating the problem Roy and Ahmady seen to be acting on autopilot dissipating the modicum of chemistry they have. The one who really holds the show together is the Genie. Marcus M. Martin is very good, but compared to James Monroe Iglehart, who was here in 2013, Martin seems to be trying too hard. His singing and dancing just don’t match those of Iglehart, who dominated the show with his poise, precision and charisma.

Ultimately, Aladdin is simply a spectacle studded with various magic tricks – appearances, disappearances, transformations and levitations. The most impressive of these is the magic carpet ride in Act 2. Aladdin and Jasmine may be singing the one hit song from the musical, “A Whole New World”, but no one is paying attention to them but asking themselves, “How are they making the carpet fly?” and hoping they won’t fall off.

Seeing Aladdin again, this time with a lesser cast, makes one realize how superficial the show is and how reliant it is on stereotypes in music, characterization and design. For most of the cast to mumble away so many of the lyrics is laziness. The tale of Aladdin and Jasmine is already underwritten and uninvolving, but without a Genie dazzling enough to distract us from this failing, all we have is a show that is very, very shiny – but hollow.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Adi Roy as Aladdin; Marcus M. Martin as the Genie; Adi Roy as Aladdin and Senzel Ahmadi as Jasmine. © 2024 Deen van Meer.

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