You Ain’t Never Had a Friend Like Me

Robin Williams

Robin Williams had one of those careers where you forget just how many momentous films he was in.

Of course, there are always the immediate ones that come to mind, a list that I’m sure varies from person to person. For me, it’s Aladdin, Hook, and Good Will Hunting. But then I scroll through his IMDB filmography, and I’m suddenly going down memory lane as I remember and realize how much my childhood was influenced and filled by his talent, humor, and presence. From watching FernGully on repeat, to Mork and Mindy, to Jumanji scaring the bejesus out of me with those enormous plastic spiders, to the iconic Mrs. Doubtfire, Robin was a constant in my young life.

And as I continue to sift through IMDB, I recall Dead Poets Society. Patch Adams. The Birdcage. Awakenings. One Hour Photo. And then there are the ones I have yet to see like What Dreams May Come, Toys, and Good Morning Vietnam (I know, I know. Maybe now I’ll finally get around to it). And that list doesn’t even touch half of the films he made – films which influenced audiences all around the world.

I don’t know how many of you watched his recent CBS show, The Crazy Ones (obviously not that many being that it didn’t get picked up for a second season). Nonetheless, I watched all of it and believe it was canceled prematurely. It was quirky and weird and maybe a little too out there, but it was hilarious and knew exactly what it wanted to be. Kind of like Robin.

I couldn’t fall asleep last night because I fell down the wormhole of watching clips and kept crying. As much as I’ve been saddened by some of the great actors we’ve lost in the last few years, this hits closer to home, as I imagine it might for many of the folks in my generation. We grew up with Mr. Williams. He shaped us. He taught us comedy, improvisation, voices, joy, and how to do an impression of a hot dog.

After I saw the news last night, I called my mom and said that I can’t believe we’re getting to a point where the generation of actors I grew up watching is dying. But we shouldn’t be there yet. Robin, you left us too soon. We will miss you and will continue to watch your films for years to come. Whenever we’re looking to be uplifted. Whenever we want to be inspired. And most importantly, whenever we’re in need of a laugh.

Bangarang, Peter.

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Aladdin

Aladdin

So the critics and I haven’t been seeing eye-to-eye much of late. ROCKY received mostly negative reviews, and I think it’s one of the more exciting shows this season. Meanwhile, Aladdin received rave reviews, and to be honest with you, I didn’t think it was all that amazing. People are lapping this show up; the audience was on its feet before the bows even started. And I doubt the show will have much trouble selling tickets being that it’s…ya know, Disney’s Aladdin (albeit The Little Mermaid wasn’t much of a success).

Here’s the thing: this production is a huge and colorful spectacle, but ultimately, I thought it lacked heart – the heart that I feel is deeply a part of the movie. Lines taken directly from the film (lines that still make me cry despite having watched the movie a thousand times because it’s my favorite Disney flick) actually made me roll my eyes. I don’t think the show goes much deeper than the glitzy surface. Aladdin comes off as pretty bland, and it becomes even more apparent how much this hero lies.

My biggest complaint may be the cutting of the animals. Yeah, yeah, I know – it’s a new musical, it’s not the same as the movie, and I have to let certain things go. But I’m sorry! This is Disney! They have so much money. Figure out how to make Abu work instead of throwing him to the curb and giving Aladdin three pals who follow him around instead, churning out jokes like “I feel awful.” “Did someone say falafel?” Iago is still in it, but now he’s Jafar’s human sidekick. He does have some funny moments, but I want the parrot! Abu, Iago, and Raja are iconic characters. As far as I’m concerned, it’d be like doing Beauty & the Beast and cutting Lumiere, Cogsworth, and Mrs. Potts.

Oh, and I imagine you want to know about the flying carpet. Yes, the carpet does fly. It’s cool magic, and I don’t know how it’s done, but “A Whole New World” (one of my favorite songs of all time) falls short. The stage is dark except for the stars, and you can barely see the actors as the carpet makes its way all over the stage. The orchestrations are thinned out, and as a result, I didn’t feel the charge and excitement that typically comes hand in hand with that number.

Okay, enough negativity. Let me talk about the things that do work. You guys! Jafar is THE Jafar! Jonathan Freeman, the voice of the original Jafar, plays the role, and the kid in me definitely got a kick out of hearing him live. Some of the new songs are nice (written by Alan Menken and Chad Beguelin) and for the most part add to the story (A Million Miles Away is a lovely new tune).

Basically, the thing to know is that the Genie is the show. It should actually probably be called Genie. James Monroe Iglehart, who was also pretty darn fabulous in Memphis, gets another truly flashy role to show off his comedic and physical chops. “Friend Like Me” is an enormous production number and is the principal reason to buy a ticket. The way critics are saying it’s worth going to ROCKY for the last big fight? That’s what this song is. Nothing else matches it. (Speaking of which – why is it not the Act 1 Finale? I wonder if that’s changed since I saw it in previews. There are more scenes after that and another reprise of “Proud of Your Boy.” Bring the curtain down! Nothing can top that number!)

So listen, if you go see Aladdin, I’m sure you’ll enjoy yourself. I just felt like there were a lot of missed opportunities. There were more tricks and magic in the Finding Nemo production I saw at Animal Kingdom in Disney World. And the “wink wink nudge nudge” humor in the new material becomes so dominant that when you get to the deep-down spirit of story, the energy drops. The show is still fun as a whole, and the target audience will certainly be entertained. As for me, I think if more time had been spent on the heart of the show rather than all the mugging, I might have walked away feeling differently.

Aladdin
Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, Book and Lyrics by Chad Beguelin, Directed by Casey Nicholaw
New Amsterdam Theatre, Open-Ended
Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann
Pictured: Adam Jacobs