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Disney's Aladdin Transports Audiences to a Whole New (Yet Still the Same) World

by Cassiopeia Guthrie, April 7, 2024

"Come for the hummus and stay for the floor show," proclaims Genie, played by vivacious Marcus M. Martin. It's emblematic of what to expect - and what to consider - for audience members of Disney Aladdin, currently playing at Broadway San Diego's Civic Theatre through April 7.

Jasmine and Aladdin share a romantic moment.
Cast of Disney's Aladdin. Photo credit: Deen Van Meer. © Disney

The musical, with music by Alen Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice, and Chad Beguelin, and Book by Chad Beguillin, is a mostly-faithful retelling of Disney's classic story which follows street rat Aladdin's (Adi Roy) romantic entanglement with beleaguered Princess Jasmine (Senzel Ahmady), his discovery of a magic lamp which houses a genie, and his subsequent saving of Agrabah from the wicked vizier Jafar (played by standby Nichalas L. Parker). A few changes mark the stage production as different, but generally the idea is the same: local boy makes good.

This touring production is led by the charismatic young Adi Roy in the role of the impoverished orphan. Reeling from the loss of his mother, Aladdin hopes to redeem his life of crime and to make her somehow “proud of (her) boy.” Roy is strong and energetic, maintaining the energy necessary for his role. His voice is clear and pure and his songs are well performed, if stagnantly blocked. His character is innately likable.

The four street rats try their hand at performing as singers/dancers instead of thieves.
Cast of Disney's Aladdin. Photo credit: Deen Van Meer. © Disney

Furthermore, his pureness of spirit and connectedness to others are evident not just in the way that he connects authentically with a princess-in-disguise, but also in his relationships with his three friends, Babkak (Jake Letts), Omar (Nathan Levy), and Kassim (Colt Prattles). The trio’s loyalty to their friend leads to a number of heartwarming moments. Likewise, their physical comedy is on full display; these three and Genie (Martin) earned the most genuine chuckles from the audience over the course of the evening.

Passionate and talented Ahmady plays the role of Jasmine, a fiery and frustrated princess who seeks agency in her life. While performed admirably by the young actress, the character, as written, is simply a plot device to advance the story. This is unfortunate, not only for the story itself, but because her beautiful voice is underused; she appears in just a few numbers and lacks a song solely her own, despite serving as the show’s romantic lead.

The cast of Aladdin poses at the end of Friend Like Me.
Cast of Disney's Aladdin. Photo credit: Deen Van Meer. © Disney

From a technical/creative perspective, the costumes by Gregg Barnes are flashy and bright alongside sparkling scenic design by Bob Crowley and lighting by Natasha Katz. The bevy of songs are accompanied by an outstanding and tight 9-piece Aladdin orchestra under the direction of conductor James Dodgson and sound design by Ken Travis. The Disney magic is also strong in director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s big dance numbers (“One Jump Ahead,” “Friend Like Me,” and “High Adventure,” featuring fight direction by J. Allen Suddeth).

Even with these many boons to the production, for some this won’t be enough to balance out the flaws intrinsic to Aladdin, most notably its depiction of an appropriated, homogenized fictional kingdom set somewhere in the Middle East or South Asia. Orientalist stereotypes, exoticism, and misogyny have oft been part of the fabric of this production; for example, Agrabah, while beautiful, is still called “barbaric” in the song “Arabian Nights” (a word well known for its connotation to primitive, savage, uncultured, cruel, and foreign). That same song also features scantily-clad, sexualized dancers.

Dancers perform in Agrabah.
Cast of Disney's Aladdin. Photo credit: Deen Van Meer. © Disney

In this musical version, a plush Grogu is pulled from a fourth-wall breaking Genie’s pocket. Later, he croons numbers from Beauty and the Beast, Pocahontas, and the Little Mermaid. If these changes can be integrated into the show (and we can shift monkey sidekick Abu to a trio of friends with their own songs), surely we can attend to making this show less of a sanitized, culturally appropriative mess, as well as one that gives Jasmine and the show’s few women more fully fleshed out character arcs, right?

Admittedly, while some may share these same reservations and disappointments, others will be enchanted by the sparkling streamers that explode into the audience, the larger-than-life Cave of Wonders, and the hefty dose of Disney nostalgia. So… hummus and a floor show, right?

Aladdin continues on tour following its last performance in San Diego on Sunday, April 7.


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