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Adi Roy stars as Aladdin in the stage version of the 1992 Disney movie at the Princess of Wales Theatre.Deen van Meer/Handout

  • Title: Aladdin
  • Music by: Alan Menken
  • Lyrics by: Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin
  • Book by: Chad Beguelin
  • Director: Casey Nicholaw
  • Actors: Adi Roy, Marcus M. Martin, Senzel Ahmady
  • Company: Mirvish Productions
  • Venue: Princess of Wales Theatre
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to March 17

Every moment is not, alas, red letter in Aladdin, the Broadway musical now on stage in a touring production at the Princess of Wales in Toronto.

And yet, if you felt the absence of a pantomime in town over the holidays, this stage show based on the 1992 Disney movie will mostly satisfy your desire for a lowbrow, low-bar comedy with a story and songs you already know and that the whole family can attend. That’s not nothing in the bleak month of February in a kid-unfriendly metropolis like Toronto: My near-five-year-old was enchanted.

The original animated incarnation of Aladdin had a couple of elements that make it a certified Disney classic: an abundance of beautiful and catchy melodies composed by Alan Menken, never brought down by even the most idiosyncratic lyrics (like that puzzling “every moment red letter” line in A Whole New World); and, of course, Robin Williams working blue in an all-ages way as the Genie, a creature that somehow managed to bottle all of that late comedian’s genius and exuberance.

But that film, based on a tale that originated with the 18th-century Syrian storyteller Hanna Diyab, also has less than endearing and enduring aspects that made a straightforward stage adaptation this century impossible. Mainly the “negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures,” especially Muslims and Arabs and anyone Middle Eastern, that Disney now apologizes for when you fire it up with your kids on the streaming service.

Unfortunately, though Aladdin was ripe for reinvention (I definitely cringed on a recent rewatch), Disney didn’t hire the right creative team to do it for Broadway – and that’s become even clearer since the musical passed through Toronto on the way there in 2013.

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Marcus M. Martin plays the Genie with a group of dancers in a scene from Aladdin.Deen van Meer/Handout

With a cheesy gag-filled script by Chad Beguelin and throwback direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw, this stage version mainly transforms the story of a street boy, a trapped princess and a genie in a lamp into a broad comedy that could be called A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Palace.

Aladdin (Adi Roy) has lost his monkey sidekick and gained three stoogey friends named Babkak, Omar and Kassim, resurrected from an early draft of the film and as moderately amusing as a double act with a third wheel can be.

At the start of the show, Aladdin has already turned over a new leaf and renounced thievery so his late mother will be Proud of Your Boy, as he sings in a song that, also, was cut from the original movie (and, famously, inspired the name of the Canadian-founded terrorist-designated far-right group, the Proud Boys.)

Disney made the right decision in 1992 to remove both these elements: Babkak, Omar and Kassim thieve time and focus away from Aladdin building deeper relationships with the characters you actually care about – and never has a mom been killed off to less emotional effect in the Disney canon as Al’s is here.

Meanwhile, Princess Jasmine (a wonderfully saucy Senzel Ahmaddy) has also lost her companion animal and gained a trio of flirty female friends who, amazingly, don’t even get names. (Film director Guy Ritchie, of all people, did a much better job improving the representation of women in Aladdin in his 2019 live-action remake.)

The pervading jokiness undercuts the earnestness of Menken’s songs until the good part of the plot finally gets going when the evil Jafar (Anand Nagraj) and his henchsomething Iago (Aaron Choi) – no longer a bird, but not yet a man in this production – take Aladdin to the Cave of Wonders to recover a magic lamp.

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Anand Nagraj, left, plays Jafar and Aaron Choi plays Iago.Deen van Meer/Handout

Ay, here’s the rub: Genie (Marcus M. Martin) appears at last to entertain with, wah wah wah, Friend Like Me done up like a Las Vegas magic show. It has been a long time coming and Aladdin finally starts to take off – just in time for intermission.

While only 30 per cent of his rapid-fire patter actually lands, Martin’s Genie remains a congenial presence in the second act and his friendship with Aladdin ultimately does give you some feels. The bad guys – especially Choi’s squawking clown – remain great fun, too.

But Aladdin and Jasmine’s romance has zero zip, dragged down by a lack of chemistry and dead dialogue. They do go on a magic carpet ride – but the emphasis is more on making sure that the stage mechanism that holds the carpet up in the air remains invisible. It’s as thrilling as watching an Acorn Stairlift in operation.

Nicholaw has shepherded a lot of hits on Broadway starting with The Drowsy Chaperone, but this is the least imaginative of his I’ve seen. He and his designers use basic projections to conjure anything magical beyond the carpet and he must have wanted to be the anti-Lion King or something the way all animals are omitted. (How can you stage Prince Ali without even one lousy camel?)

I can’t believe he even turned the opportunity for a good scimitar fight into a slow-motion parody of one – and the less said about his Bollywood choreography interspersed with Bangles moves the better.

The truth is, retro Broadway shtick – the brief tap routine is good! – is Nicholaw’s forte and Aladdin was just the wrong container for it. Too bad the brand is so strong it’s been a huge hit – Aladdin is about to mark a decade on Broadway – because I bet Disney nevertheless wishes it could give a different team a chance to conjure the genie now.

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