Except for “The Lion King,” justly acclaimed for brilliant stagecraft, the Tony Awards haven’t respected Disney musicals. Over the last quarter-century, Disney Theatrical Productions has brought nine other musicals to Broadway; they have collected a meager total of nine Tonys, none for best musical.
Eight adapt hit films, one an opera (“Aida”). Perhaps voters think there’s nothing new to applaud, though songs have been added and storylines expanded. But if familiarity has bred contempt among critics, it has inspired curiosity among audiences. Disney’s “Aladdin” is in its sixth year at the New Amsterdam Theatre, still playing at 90 percent capacity.
The national tour reached Charlotte this week for the first time, in an extended run that lasts through Sept. 29 at Belk Theater. In this case, both audiences and critics are right.
Chad Beguelin’s book adds a modicum of grown-up wit to the screenplay: Told by Jafar that he’s the chosen one, Aladdin wryly replies, “I think the chosen people are a few hundred miles to the west.” New songs by Alan Menken and Beguelin, if not quite at the level of the movie songs Menken wrote with Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, flesh out characters and have an insistent appeal. Princess Jasmine (Kaenaonalani Kekoa, in an auspicious professional debut) spiritedly demands to be treated as an equal partner to any male suitor.
Beyond those touches, a “more is more” philosophy takes over. Aladdin (Jonah Ho’Okano), blandest of all Disney heroes, remains a nonentity as he blunders in the Cave of Wonders, woos Jasmine on a magic carpet ride (a lovely starlit effect) and struts as Prince Ali in one of many big production numbers. Korie Lee Blossey’s richly sung Genie dwarfs his human master in every scene, playing shamelessly if entertainingly to the crowd. (At one point, he demands more applause and gets it.)
In the major plot twist, Aladdin has strong-voiced sidekicks (Zach Bencal, Ben Chavez and Colt Prattes) who follow him in and out of trouble. If this trio has seen dunes, they’re not in Arabia but at the Jersey Shore. They’re so campily gay — one, waving red ribbons, giddily announces his desire to be court choreographer — that it comes as no surprise when they briefly embrace, then literally drop Jasmine’s ladies-in-waiting. Perhaps director Casey Nicholaw added this oddly amusing behavior for the sake of inclusivity.
The whole production has an inconsequential lightness. Jafar (Patrick R. Brown) has lost his sinister scowl to become a buffoon in a laughably phony beard, aided by simpering human sidekick Iago (Reggie De Leon) — or did the lone feather in his headband identify Iago as a parrot? Jafar’s guards make the Keystone Kops seem menacing: We fear not for Aladdin’s life but his overstressed ankles in elaborate chase scenes.
We’re never allowed to immerse ourselves in the mysterious Middle East; somebody’s always coming downstage to crack wise and remind us we’re watching a gaudy, cheerful, self-aware show. At one point, searching for the magic lamp, the genie pulls a Carolina Panthers cap out of his pocket. That kind of gag gets cheap guffaws but keeps us from entering a whole new world, the way great musicals always ask us to do.
When: Through Sept. 29 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
Running time: 145 minutes with one intermission.
Details: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.
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