“Aladdin” is the name of the infectious Disney Broadway musical whose national tour has taken over the Academy of Music, but it could well be titled “The Genie” — that’s the real star of the show.
James Monroe Iglehart won a Tony Award when he created the role four years ago on Broadway where the show still runs, and I didn’t think anyone else could come close to his performance as the jive-talkin’ and frenetic spirit who grants Aladdin three wishes. But then I never saw Michael James Scott, who originated the role in the show’s Australian tour, until Thursday night, when the show opened here after a preview performance the night before.
Scott is a powerhouse, with the wild rhythm of a loose cannon. He’s also — like the show itself — self-mocking and flat-out entertaining in a role initially played by Robin Williams, the voice of the genie in the Disney animated movie before the stage version. Williams was a hard act to follow, and perhaps the best measure of the theatrical version is the way it enlarges the genie by ramping him up to a rock-star spirit let loose on the stage.
Still, if a genie offered me any wish about this show, mine would be to brighten the acoustics for “Aladdin” and all the Broadway tours at the Academy of Music. I’m not sure any genie could fix this. To be fair the beautiful Victorian-era Hall, essentially an opera house, wasn’t built for razzmatazz orchestral music with amplified voices bouncing around its large main floor and balconies.
The lyrics for many songs in “Aladdin” — so hip and quick and often clever — are crystal on Broadway and sometimes indecipherable at the Academy, especially when Scott rips through his wild rendition of “Friend Like Me,” one of the show’s highlights. I don’t know whether the problem is a mixture of the Academy’s interior and the show’s own sound design — it’s likely that a Broadway tour, moving constantly from hall to hall, can’t fit itself to the vagaries of each. The end result, though, when you’re forced to focus extra hard on every word, is a frustration that busts into any magical spell the actors are weaving.
In fact, that spell also was attacked by technical glitches on opening night — magic ain’t what it used to be. The first of two interruptions came in Act One just as you-know-who was about to pop from the you-know-what that Aladdin (the amiable Clinton Greenspan) found in a cave full of golden jewels (Bob Crowley’s rich and colorful scenic design). The hang-up was an old-fashioned problem: A piece of scenery was uncooperative. The curtain came down and 17 minutes later, came up again as Aladdin was about to rub the lamp that would change his life.
In act two, a modern stage effect dented the show’s arc. Just as Aladdin and Princess Jasmine (a lovely performance by Isabelle McCalla), the young woman he’s mad about, had boarded a magic carpet to sing “A Whole New World” — one of the faves from both the movie and the show — the curtain came down again. This particular carpet was having an Earthbound Moment. Eight minutes later, the curtain rose and Aladdin beckoned his Jasmine to come aboard with the scripted line “Do you trust me?” It became, unintentionally, opening night’s funniest moment.
“Aladdin” doesn’t need glitches to be a funny, and whatever the problems, the safety of the actors is paramount. The show must go on, but only when no one’s at risk — and the magic carpet is one of the great (and dangerous looking) effects of the evening, along with others including pyrotechnics aided by swell lighting design. Casey Nicholaw’s rat-a-at direction and spirited choreography give it class. The show combines music from the movie with new tunes that seem to spring from a generic Disney songbook, but it’s all pleasant enough and moves the story forward.
Other major roles are delivered with zest: Jasmine’s father (Jerald Vincent), his evil advisor (Jonathan Weir) and goofy sidekick (Jay Paranada), and Aladdin’s three buddies (Zach Bencal, Philippe Arroyo and Jed Feder). Zesty, as in lively and likable — that’s an appropriate description of “Aladdin,” both the Broadway version and this one.
“Aladdin,” in its national tour, runs through July 1 at the Academy of Music, on Broad Street between Locust and Spruce Streets. 215-893-1999 or kimmelcenter.org.