I could not have been in a worse mood than when I sat down to two and a half hours of Disney’s Aladdin Wednesday night. After a long day of nannying, teaching, and traffic, I was at a breaking point. But then, the Genie stepped onstage, against the familiar backdrop of Agrabah. The audience cheered as my problems fell away, just as they used to while watching the well-worn VHS tape of my childhood. No matter the time or place, the magic of Genie and Aladdin can make any day better, and this latest North American tour is no exception.
Genie begins our journey with “Arabian Nights,” a triumphant, full-company expansion of the film’s original song. The curtain is made of a tapestry of ornate rugs, and it rises to reveal the buzzing city of Agrabah, where the ensemble of 14 fills the stage to the brim with the sumptuous choreography of Casey Nicholaw, who also directed the production. His choreography and direction are inextricably intertwined, using dance to create the unmistakable atmospheres and moods of each setting, from the marketplace to the palace. The chorus skillfully elevates every element of the storytelling, setting the stage for the main action with the principals, led by literal Disney prince Adi Roy as Aladdin and Marcus M. Martin as a brilliant Genie.
Roy, who first played the role of Aladdin in a middle school production, captures the cheekiness of the cartoon version while offering his own interpretation of the rogue thief. It is his performance that grounds the entire production, and because of Roy’s emotional range and natural acting, it all works. Roy’s Aladdin shows immense growth through the show, and his journey to becoming an honest man is nothing short of a Harold Hill moment. Roy could have chemistry with a phone book, and his interactions with Martin’s Genie and Senzal Ahmady’s Jasmine make this story soar. Buoyed by the incredible dancing of an elite ensemble and the delightful orchestrations by Danny Troob, this Aladdin will appeal to both fans of the original and those completely unfamiliar with the project.
While the stage version certainly honors the spirit of the animated movie, there are a few notable book changes, particularly when it comes to the elimination of all the animal characters. The most successful of these changes is the elimination of Abu, Aladdin’s film companion. Instead of monologuing to a monkey, Aladdin takes to the streets with his ragtag group of friends — Babkak, Omar, and Kassim played expertly this night by understudy Cameron Simian, Ben Chavez, and the enigmatic Colt Prattes. Their characters commit to rehabilitating their thieving ways in honor of Aladdin’s recently deceased mother by becoming street performers. Their brotherly bonds make for more interesting commentary on friendship and found family than the original text offers, and it is their loyal love for Aladdin despite his mistakes that raises the stakes and offers comic relief from the more politically charged moments with Jafar (Anand Nagraj) and Iago (Aaron Choi). Iago is, unfortunately, not a parrot played by Gilbert Gottfried. Instead, Iago is just some guy, totally stripped of Gottfried’s signature humor and made into a LeFou lite with a prettier costume. These iconic villains may not easily translate to the stage in the same way Gaston or even Ursula might, but they nonetheless provide humor and danger for our heroes.
The final, and perhaps most misguided, book change is the introduction of three nameless female attendants who dote upon Jasmine. The introduction of a girl gang to replace Raja the tiger would have been a welcome addition if only they had bothered to name these characters or give them any meaningful character points. While Babkak, Omar, and Kassim get to have personalities and motivations, Jasmine’s three friends are just there. Disney — like most of Hollywood and Broadway — has a troubled legacy of writing female characters without much going on outside of their love lives, and this was an opportunity for Disney Theatricals to give the little girls who love this story more chances to see themselves in Agrabah. Though do we need anyone besides Jasmine? She has always been enough, and she remains as biting as ever, despite little stage time — she puts the princess in princess track and flies through the 150 minutes without breaking a sweat.
Regardless, this is ultimately Aladdin’s story, and it functions as his tale to tell. Roy is simply unmissable in this role — it’s hard not to fall in love alongside Jasmine as they sing of “A Whole New World,” which left me openly weeping — not in small part because it is the wedding song of my parents, who are about to celebrate their 30th anniversary. As I watched Aladdin and Jasmine on their magic carpet ride, I was struck by the great amount of love that has poured from Alan Menken’s music and Howard Ashman’s lyrics since Aladdin began its journey decades ago and how it has seeped into the hearts of every audience member that sat beside me.
Theater, at its best, connects you to the stranger beside you, and makes them a friend. This magical production does just that.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
Disney’s Aladdin plays through April 30, 2023, at the National Theatre located at 1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC. Tickets (starting at $55) are available online or by calling the box office at (202) 628-6161, Monday through Friday 12 pm to 6 pm.
Recommended for children 6 years of age or older. Children under the age of 4 will not be admitted.
Cast and creative credits for the North American tour of Disney’s Aladdin can be found here.
COVID Safety: Masks are strongly recommended but not required for all ticket holders. For full COVID protocol, go here.