Just before the intermission of “Aladdin” at the Hollywood Pantages, the Genie finally emerges from his lamp. "Did you miss me?” he asks the audience before launching into a spangly, torrential, full-ensemble performance of the Oscar-nominated song “Friend Like Me."
We met the Genie at the start of the show, when he provided a flirty introduction to the fictional kingdom of Agrabah, so we don’t expect him to be blue, as he is in the 1992 Disney film on which this musical is based. We know he's a man, the actor Michael James Scott, and not an anthropomorphic wisp of smoke. His head is a gleaming dome, his painted-on eyebrows are extreme, and although he’s not Robin Williams, who originated the motor-mouthed, wisecracking character onscreen, this Genie clearly knows how to make us laugh. He’s fabulous and sassy, and his wide-ranging pop culture references and impersonations have been freshened up for a new generation by the book writer, Chad Beguelin.
So yes, we did miss him.
Not that there wasn't plenty to see in the meantime. Scenic designer Bob Crowley dazzles us first with the peach- and rose-saturated market in Agrabah, then the white lacy filigree of the Sultan’s palace against an azure sky and finally the jaw-droppingly vast, gold-encrusted Cave of Wonders, complete with moving stalagmites that slide onstage and then telescope up to their full height.
Gregg Barnes’ glittery costumes, luscious as a garden of cotton candy flowers, expose a dizzying array of pectoral muscles and belly buttons, which director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw’s lively dance numbers keep moving.
Through it all we meet the characters from the film: Aladdin (Adam Jacobs), a poor “street rat” who lives by petty thievery, always "one jump ahead of the lawmen”; the feisty Princess Jasmine (Courtney Reed), who wants to marry for love; her father, the rule-bound Sultan (JC Montgomery), who insists that she marry a prince; and his skeevy, black-gowned vizier, Jafar (Jonathan Weir), who dreams of seizing power.
We’re also introduced to new characters, because somebody realized that the film's animal sidekicks play better onstage as people. Instead of a pet monkey, Aladdin has three stooge-like but affable buddies played by Philippe Arroyo, Zach Bencal and Mike Longo. (Two of them seem to be channeling Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella as Timon and Pumbaa in “The Lion King.”) In place of a tiger, Princess Jasmine gets a trio of lissome, emotionally supportive female attendants who urge her to sneak out in disguise to experience the freedom of life as a commoner. And Iago, Jafar's gleefully amoral confidant, is now a brightly dressed servant instead of a parrot — although, as played by Reggie De Leon, just as screechy.
Additional songs have been woven into the score by Alan Menken (music), Howard Ashman (lyrics) and Tim Rice (lyrics). Some of these numbers were evidently written for the film but dropped; a few were added more recently by Menken and Beguelin.
Although the original collection of six songs is thin for a stage musical, it could be argued that the newcomers don't add enough to the story to justify the time they take. We don’t really need "Proud of Your Boy," in which Aladdin sings of his desire to be more than just a criminal. By the time we’ve sat through the laborious hijinks of “Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim,” in which the four pals try busking for a living, we have begun to suspect the show of stalling for time. Is there some technical problem backstage?
Fortunately, the story does get going again. During their meet-cute in the marketplace, the disguised Jasmine and Aladdin run afoul of the law. Aladdin is arrested and dragged to the palace dungeon, where, through sorcery, Jafar learns that this unprepossessing con man is actually "the diamond in the rough," the one person worthy of entering the Cave of Wonders that holds the magic lamp.
Jafar offers Aladdin his freedom in exchange for retrieving the lamp. Once inside the cave, though, Aladdin can’t resist grabbing a jade necklace for Jasmine, affronting the cave, which collapses and traps him and the lamp inside.
Here, we get to the fun part: Aladdin rubs the lamp, and the Genie appears, a whirlwind of energy and humor, ready and willing to fulfill three wishes and provide loads of Broadway-style spectacle in the process.
Nicholaw certainly doesn’t stint on the showmanship during “Friend Like Me,” engulfing us in wave after wave of of dance and acrobatic sequences, delirious with costumes and explosions of confetti.
Scott is occasionally left a touch out of breath by the obligation to be all over the stage at once, while sustaining a speech rate faster than most people’s train of thought, but he still comes across as superhuman. More important, Aladdin’s rapport with him is much friendlier, warmer and more mutually sympathetic than the prickly, tentative bond he struck up with Jasmine in the marketplace.
It’s more obvious onstage than onscreen that these two critical relationships have opposite vectors. By Act II, we understand that as soon as the Genie has helped Aladdin win Jasmine’s heart by disguising him as a prince, Aladdin will use his final wish to grant the Genie freedom. The price of finding love will be losing his closest friend.
It’s upsetting to imagine, because Aladdin and the Genie have fun together, making jokes and putting on delightful parades, as in the the splashy “Prince Ali” (another highlight of the production). When he’s with Jasmine, Aladdin is usually lying to her about his identity, apologizing for having lied previously or both.
She does enjoy his magic carpet ride — a charming rendition of the Oscar-winning song “A Whole New World” in which the carpet really flies, maybe a little more slowly and unsteadily than you might like a carpet to fly but still pretty cool.
Aladdin is so worried about not living up to Jasmine’s expectations that he briefly reneges on his promise to free the Genie. He comes through in the end, and the Genie’s affectionate acceptance of him, flaws and all, strengthens their bond.
Aladdin's chronic lying to Jasmine seems a bit harder to forgive. Or maybe the obligatory forgiveness she provides isn’t convincing in the context of the high romantic standards she has spent most of the story asserting. Or maybe it’s just that by embroidering on the movie’s plot, this stage version exposes some of its holes.
For whatever reason, the musical left me more concerned about the marital future of this attractive couple. The fun curtain call intervenes before we have to watch them 10 years in, their harem pants a bit tighter, sniping at each other over baklava as she lectures him about honesty and he grouses that he'll never have a friend like the Genie again.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: Hollywood Pantages, 6233 Hollywood Blvd., Los Angeles
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends March 31
Tickets: $35 and up (subject to change)
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes