Upon entering the treasure-filled Cave of Wonders in search of some old lamp, Aladdin, the street urchin with a heart of gold, is momentarily more dazzled by the gold surrounding him. Just take a few of these coins, he suggests to those waiting outside, and you could buy all the lamps you want.
Of course, it’s the lamp that holds the magic—both for the purposes of the story and for this musical adaptation of the Disney animated film; on stage, as on screen, it’s the Genie rather than the title character that really livens up the joint. But you get the sense in watching this endeavor, which launches its first national tour with a five-month stand in Chicago, that Disney has thrown an entire cave’s worth of coins into making a dazzling, diabolically entertaining spectacle. No expense, and no pun, has been spared.
The familiar story, of course, takes place in Agrabah, a fictional city where “even the poor people are fabulous,” as the Genie tells us in the opening number, “Arabian Nights.” Enter Aladdin (squeaky-clean Adam Jacobs, reprising his role from the Broadway production), poor of purse but fabulous of pecs. After a chance encounter in the marketplace with spunky Princess Jasmine (Isabelle McCalla), doing the old royal-disguised-as-a-commoner bit to escape her father’s pressure to pick a suitor, Aladdin uses his newfound Genie (Anthony Murphy, charming and sly in the eager-to-please entertainer vein) to pass himself off as a prince.
Most of the best-loved songs from the 1992 movie’s score by composer Alan Menken and lyricists Howard Ashman and Tim Rice are present, along with some that were written for the movie but cut. The handful of brand-new numbers, by Menken with lyrics by the show’s book writer, Chad Beguelin, are weak in comparison to the likes of “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali.” (When Beguelin rhymes “Mutt and Jeff” with “BFF,” it feels cheap and incongruous at once.)
Wisely, Beguelin does away with the cartoon’s animal and inanimate supporting characters; the parrot Iago is made into a sycophantic human sidekick (Reggie De Leon) to villain Jafar (Chicago’s own Jonathan Weir, hidden behind exaggerated eyebrows that are the most cartoonish thing onstage), while Aladdin gets a trio of ragamuffin pals (Zach Bencal, Philippe Arroyo and Mike Longo) to replace pet monkey Abu. Aladdin and Jasmine still get to take a magic carpet ride—in the show’s most showy bit of how’d-they-do-that stagecraft—but the carpet doesn’t participate in any conversations.
That particular magic trick aside, the show’s at its most magical when it’s giving us old-fashioned, capital-E entertainment. Director Casey Nicholaw also serves as choreographer, and there is a lot of choreography, performed by a nimble ensemble who tap up a storm in “Friend Like Me” and put on a veritable costume parade in “Prince Ali,” the Act II opener that culminates with streamer cannons shot into the audience. And the Genie, by his nature, gets a wide berth to make nonsensical pop-culture references that make this a more winking, self-aware affair than any of its Disney Broadway brethren. Murphy even gets to interpolate a mini-medley of tracks from those other shows into his own big number. It’s comic gold.
Cadillac Palace Theatre. Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin. Book by Beguelin. Directed by Casey Nicholaw. With Adam Jacobs, Anthony Murphy, Isabelle McCalla, Jonathan Weir. Running time: 2hrs 25mins; one intermission.