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Originally published July 1, 2011 at 10:01 PM | Page modified July 6, 2011 at 11:09 AM

5th Avenue Theatre and Disney conjure new 'Aladdin'

The 5th Avenue Theatre's world-premiere musical "Aladdin" is something of a departure from the Disney-animated film it's based on, with more of an old-fashioned musical-comedy feeling and restored songs originally cut from the movie. "Book of Mormon" Tony winner Casey Nicholaw directs the show's highly anticipated Seattle debut.

Seattle Times theater critic

Theater preview

'Aladdin'

Previews begin Thursday and run through July 20; official opening July 21, runs through July 31. 5th Avenue Theatre, 1308 Fifth Ave., Seattle; $28-$113 (206-625-1900 or www.5thavetheatre.org).
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In a humid basement rehearsal hall at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre, a throng of singer-dancers in tees and sweats is giving its all to a vivacious musical number.

The show's Tony Award-winning director-choreographer Casey Nicholaw, an affable, energized ex-dancer in khaki shorts, fixes attentively on several actors playing street musicians. They are cavorting through "Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim" — a spirited vaudeville-style tune, set in a bustling Arabian bazaar.

The number is from the new show "Aladdin," adapted from Disney's hit animated film. And its July 7-31 world premiere is the first collaboration between showbiz mega-player Disney Theatrical Productions and the 5th Avenue Theatre — an increasingly in-demand tryout hub for big-league musicals.

Clearly a great deal of polished talent and showbiz savvy are going into this effort, which starts previews Thursday.

As for the scale and future of the family-oriented "Aladdin": Will it go on to regional, amateur and stock theaters? Or be ramped up for a Broadway blastoff? That likely depends a lot on Seattle's response to it.

"We'll take a look at what we have here, before it's decided what to do with it next," says Nicholaw, who is guiding a cast blending out-of-towners and Seattle talent. "We'll add and change things throughout the run."

Yet at any point in the show's evolution here, do not expect to see another "Lion King." Or the next "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," the new $65 million-plus Broadway extravaganza.

The trend for such expensive, elaborate musical spectacles may well be dimming on (and off) the Great White Way.

Mainly earthbound

Relative to earlier Disney screen-to-stage hits ("Lion King," "Beauty and the Beast") and costly misses ("Tarzan," "The Little Mermaid"), "Aladdin" will be mainly earthbound and human-scale, says Nicholaw.

Nicholaw (who just won a 2011 Tony for directing the hottest new show on Broadway, "The Book of Mormon"), and his chief collaborators, writer Chad Beguelin and composer Alan Menken, agree "Aladdin" won't aim to charm with monumental sets or high-tech stunts.

They hope to trade on colorful, old-school, song-and-dance pizazz, from more than a dozen catchy tunes (a few new, most penned for the film), appealing characters and frisky shtick.

"We aren't doing a million special effects," says the director. "We want the show to be human and have a big, buoyant feel, mainly through dance and creative stuff."

"The end result is going to be spectacular, but not expensive spectacular," says 5th Avenue executive producer and artistic director David Armstrong. "I think the audience will feel, 'Wow, that was amazing!' But creativity is what's going to make it spectacular."

A week ago, it was up in the air whether this loose retelling of an ancient Middle Eastern folktale would have a magic flying carpet in sight.

Menken, best known for his Oscar-winning film scores for Disney's "Aladdin," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Pocahontas," says the theatrical "Aladdin" is closer to what he and lyricist Howard Ashman originally envisioned for the 1992 film.

"We had a very different concept than the way it turned out," Menken says. "We gave Aladdin several sidekicks to provide the kind of camaraderie in the old Bob Hope and Bing Crosby road pictures, but they were cut from the movie. So were a number of songs I wrote for it with Howard, and with Tim Rice." (Rice replaced Ashman, who died before the score was completed.)

According to Menken, the "smart-alecky, tongue-in-cheek" tone of some early lyrics "made Disney a bit nervous."

Execs worried the film's depiction of Arabs might be too caricatured, offensive to some. (The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee did object to a line in the opening song "Arabian Nights," which Disney later replaced.)

In the show, it's "still important to be sensitive about stereotypes involving Allah, Arabs, the Middle East," Menken says. "But really this is just fun, fun, fun about a street kid who learns to empower himself."

The upbeat "Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim" (named for members of Aladdin's street band) is among a half-dozen tunes debuting at the 5th Avenue — most written for the film, others new, with music by Menken and lyrics by Beguelin. (Songs repeated from the film include the Oscar winner, "A Whole New World.")

In Beguelin's gag-laden book, Aladdin's romance with Princess Jasmine and rivalry with an evil courtier, Jafar (Jonathan Freeman, who also voiced the film role), are preserved. But the sidekicks are featured, and the Genie is not the movie's Robin Williams-style comic motor-mouth, but a Cab Calloway-like jazzman.

Bound for Broadway?

The escalating technical complexity and cost of Broadway musicals based on blockbuster films makes them riskier bets for producers, and bigger targets for critical displeasure.

And the megahit "Book of Mormon" (co-created by Matt Stone and Trey Parker, of TV's "South Park") reminds you that a punchy, irreverent script, lovable characters and vivacious musical numbers can be more crowd- and critic-pleasing than lots of aerial and laser wizardry.

Armstrong believes his theater is the right place and Nicholaw the right director to give "Aladdin" oomph, without the extravagance.

Nicholaw's first big choreography job was in 5th Avenue's "The Prince and the Pauper," Armstrong points out. "Casey's the perfect director for 'Aladdin' for three reasons. He's a master of comedy. He has great choreographic skill. And when he has to put a parade on stage, he finds the smartest, funniest, wittiest and most jaw-dropping way to do it — just with people, and lots of costumes."

Armstrong said the 5th Avenue has invested about $1 million, plus a lot of staff time, in the show — with at least another million and probably much more from Disney, however no total budget numbers have been disclosed.

Wherever "Aladdin" goes, 5th Avenue will get a slice of its profits.

According to a recent report in Variety, Disney is increasingly focusing on more portable shows for the regional and international licensing markets, with theatrical versions of its films "Freaky Friday" and "The Jungle Book" also in development.

A Gotham success would certainly bring in the big bucks, and the 5th Avenue is currently collecting royalties on the Broadway shows "Catch Me If You Can" and "Memphis," as it has on other shows it tried out in Seattle.

But Armstrong insists,"We never know for sure whether a show is going on to Broadway after playing here."

Disney seems to be hedging its bets, saying it has no Broadway plans for "Aladdin." Disney Theatrical Productions president Thomas Schumacher declined a request for an interview.

Whatever the future holds for "Aladdin," in the 5th Avenue rehearsal hall Nicholaw (who is also developing a theatrical version of the Rat Pack flick, "Robin and the 7 Hoods") is focusing like a high beam on Aladdin and his band-boy buddies.

And what about that magic carpet? There will be one, he answers. But don't expect it to soar over the crowd.

"Instead of enormous theatrics with the carpet, it's more important to have beautiful stage pictures," Nicholaw says. "And we'll have them."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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