NEW YORK — In a midtown rehearsal studio that’s been transformed into the fabled, fictional city of Agrabah, the cast of the new Broadway musical Aladdin is being put through its paces.
Director/choreographer Casey Nicholaw, a Tony Award winner for his work on The Book of Mormon, is guiding his leading man and lady through a scene in which the scrappy title character and his royal love interest have just met, in a crowded, colorful marketplace.
Though Adam Jacobs and Courtney Reed are not in costume, fans of the 1992 animated Disney film on which the show is based would immediately recognize them as Aladdin and Princess Jasmine.
And they would surely remember the moment in which Jasmine — who has stolen away from the palace, dressed as a commoner — lifts an apple from a fruit cart, setting into motion the chaos that will lead her to Aladdin’s humble rooftop home.
In the stage adaptation, which is produced by Disney Theatricals and is in previews for a March 20 opening, that chaos is agitated when Aladdin and Jasmine nearly bump into a palace guard.
Nicholaw advises Reed that Jasmine should “take a little more time” leading up to that confrontation, so that “it’s tighter — tighter is funnier.”
The movement is adjusted, and minutes later, the other company members file out with their assorted props, leaving Jacobs and Reed to rehearse their big rooftop ballad, A Million Miles Away.
Miles is one of four new songs written for the musical by veteran composer Alan Menken and lyricist/librettist Chad Beguelin.
The five songs from the film, for which Menken collaborated with Tim Rice and the late Howard Ashman, have been retained, among them Menken and Ashman’s Oscar-winning A Whole New World.
The new Aladdin also includes several Menken/Ashman songs originally crafted for but not included in the movie, among them Proud Of Your Boy, which Aladdin, who has been stealing in order to feed himself, first sings to his late mother — “to tell her, ‘I’m going to be the person you want me to be, and make you proud,'” explains Jacobs, who has appeared previously on Broadway in The Lion King and Les Miserables.
Boy is reprised at the end of Act One, after Genie — played by Memphis and The 25th Annual Spelling Bee alumnus James Monroe Iglehart — has magically transformed Aladdin into Prince Ali, to abet his wooing of Jasmine, in Friend Like Me.
The sweetly strapping Jacobs and the fittingly cherubic Iglehart run through both numbers, in full voice, before breaking for lunch.
Discussing the show later, Iglehart, Jacobs and Reed stress that it’s structurally very similar to the film. Aladdin has three new buddies, also restored from the original concept for the movie; and his beloved pet monkey, Abu, doesn’t make an appearance.
“I was crushed at first when I heard about Abu,” admits Reed, a sloe-eyed beauty whose Main Stem credits include Mamma Mia! and In the Heights. “Then again, no one wants to be upstaged by a monkey.”
For Iglehart, a self-confessed “Disney nerd” who has dreamed of playing Genie on stage since first seeing the movie at 17, the story has evolved chiefly in “how funny it is, and how much heart there is in it. Genie has always been funny, but in the show more actors get to show their comic chops.”
Iglehart adds that while the movie was “a great adventure story,” the show emphasizes relationships between the characters, in ways that will appeal to kids and adults alike.
Reed agrees: “It’s a romance,” between Aladdin and Jasmine, “and a bromance,” between Aladdin and Genie.
Reed, who identifies herself as of “mixed ethnicity,” treasured the film “as a little girl who watched all the Disney princess movies,” because Jasmine “was the first princess who looked like me, with this long dark hair and olive skin tone.”
Jacobs, born to a Filipina mother and “a Russian/Dutch/Polish/Jewish father,” and raised Catholic, notes that “a lot of people in this company” come from similarly eclectic backgrounds. And Aladdin offers a lesson, he adds, that should resonate for all of them.
“When Aladdin first finds the lamp” that brings him to Genie, says Jacobs, “he thinks that everything will be solved. But what he learns is that the materialistic things you have don’t matter; it all comes back to being true to yourself and having integrity. I think that’s a great message for audiences today.”