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theatre review

Courtney Reed and Adam Jacobs star in Aladdin at Toronto’s Ed Mirvish Theatre in November 2013.Cylla von Tiedemann

Aladdin is the latest of the musical films from what's known as the "Disney Renaissance" to make its way from the screen to the stage. The Lion King, which opened in New York in 1997, recently became the first musical of any kind to hit $1-billion in cumulative ticket sales, while Newsies is Disney Theatrical Group's latest box-office hit. But there have been flops, too, such as The Little Mermaid and Tarzan.

Will Aladdin – which opened in Toronto at the Ed Mirvish Theatre on Thursday night for what they call an out-of-town tryout – fly on Broadway in the new year?

Certainly, set designer Bob Crowley has made good on the promise of the "unbelievable sights" that street urchin Aladdin (Adam Jacobs) and princess Jasmine (Courtney Reed) sing about in the take-away tune A Whole New World. Here is a magic carpet that genuinely seems to be possessed by hocus-pocus, flying through the air with the greatest of ease through a sky of shooting stars and spinning planets conjured through more traditionally theatrical, but no less thrilling techniques.

But as for those "indescribable feelings" the leads sing about? Well, there are actually plenty of words to describe them, but I think one three-letter neologism will do: Meh. Chemistry is missing between Aladdin and Jasmine, while charm is AWOL in general from much of the proceedings.

Director Casey Nicholaw has done wonders in the past with self-mocking musical comedies like The Drowsy Chaperone and The Book of Mormon. Even though the latter has a running gag making fun of The Lion King, he still got this gig.

But the earnest tone of much of the 1992 movie musical doesn't match up with the tongue-in-cheek tone that Mr. Nicholaw and book writer Chad Beguelin have chosen for the stage version. Whatever humour infused Mr. Nicholaw's earlier work, here it's watered down too much for children. Here is an action-adventure romance where the suspense and the soul has disappeared – and, in compensation, there are barely groan-worthy puns about Middle Eastern food.

Mr. Beguelin has added in a trio of pals for Aladdin – Brian Gonzales, Jonathan Schwartz and Brandon O'Neill, who are game, but saddled with lame material. They seem like a double-act ripped from vaudeville, then burdened by a third wheel; They add too much comic relief to a loosely plotted show that could use some extra dramatic stakes.

("Do I look like a camel to you?" says one. No," replies the second. "Then get off my hump!" And that's one of the better jokes.)

This isn't to say that Aladdin is a total disaster – the decision to make Agrabah a multicultural metropolis neutralizes some of the concerns with Middle Eastern stereotypes that have been raised about the film. And when it comes to the Genie – wherein the original movie's appeal largely lay – Mr. Nicholaw has found a way to theatricalize his magic and the right actor for the job.

James Monroe Iglehart – trying his best to fill the big shoes of Robin Williams – has a hilarious entrance, doing his best Oprah impression and shouting: "You get a wish, and you get a wish, and you get a wish!" Naturally, his songs like Friend Like Me and Prince Ali involve the conjuring of large chorus lines. He's a hoot.

But even Mr. Iglehart's Genie – with his quest to be free – fails to really find a heart for the show with his quest to be free. Likewise, newish songs intended to deepen character like Proud of Your Boy – in which Aladdin talks to his deceased mother – fall flat. You can see why this Alan Menken song was excised from the original movie.

Ultimately, with Mr. Jacobs and Ms. Reed mugging broadly, Aladdin comes across as a big-budget version of one of the Christmas pantos that Ross Petty produces in downtown Toronto each holiday season.

But those pantos inevitably leave me out of breath from laughter at least once, while this Aladdin only elicited a few chuckles. This is strictly for the kiddies.