GEEK GALCaroline Cao Dishes Out Mixed Thoughts on Broadway’s Aladdin: Colorblind Casting Gone Wrong?By Caroline Cao | July 9, 2018 | Entertainment
I saw it. I finally snagged a student discount for the balcony seating of Disney’s Aladdin. Which is impressive, because student discounts for Disney Broadway productions like Lion King and Frozen are one-in-a-million.
Based on the 1992 animated Disney classic, the 2014 stage show is as invigorated as ever with Alan Menken’s score, the late Howard Ashman and Tim Rice’s lyricism, and direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw of Book of Mormon fame. But it is a bona fide product of commercial Disneyfication-dilatation of culture for the western gaze. Inspired by a tale from the Arabian Nights collection and set in a fictionalized Agrabah, we follow the exploits of young heart-of-gold thief Aladdin as he navigates his thievery through marketplaces and winning the heart of Princess Jasmine. A true Hollywoodized Middle East of sword swallowers and waving scimitars.
Critics had things to say about the maligned colorblind casting with the original Broadway cast, where performer of any brownness, but without Middle Eastern descent, personified characters of a Middle Eastern world. Is it less worse they didn’t go with an all-white cast? Sure? Is applying vague multiracial casting to a Middle Eastern realm still problematic? Yes! Monolithic brownness!
Chinese American Telly Leung now leads as Aladdin here, with Princess Jasmine played by Arielle Jacobs. They’re both wonderful performers, but their character archetypes just seemed constrained for the motions of the story rather than individualized as memorable characters.
The reprisal of Jonathan Freeman as the conniving palace advisor Jafar is also a mixed bag. It’s not that he wasn’t contented to re-embody the classic villain that garnered him acclaim in 1992; it’s that he is a white man playing a Middle Eastern villain that borders on racist caricature. His alumni status with the original film is what gave the creatives the license to condone the optics, but the optics between a white man voicing a villain of color versus a white man embodying a Middle Eastern live on stage are different, the latter having heavier implications.
At least there’s a stellar cast and magic up its sleeves. And everyone loves the Genie. The night of June 22 had standby Juwan Crawley as Genie (Major Attaway is the main Genie), with an effeminate voice that invokes a Sassy Gay Friend. And it works, he brought the house down with the showstopper “Friend Like Me” number, so famously sang by the late comedy genius Robin Williams (We all still miss him!). Also, Crawley ad-libs a Black Panther “I’m from Wakanda” joke that raked in the laughs, though a more critical mind will read it as a gratuitous tacked-on commercialism allusion.
Indeed, the Broadway Aladdin is chock-full of flashy pizzazz and flying shiny streamers that try to distract the audience from the flavorful westernization of Middle Eastern version designed for the consummation of the white gaze. Also, haha, food puns about Middle Eastern food! (“Did somebody say falafel?”). It’s designed to be kid-friendly indeed, but do kids deserve this flippant caricaturing of Middle Eastern culture?
With Guy Richie’s Aladdin live-adaptation on the horizon, this stage musical only exacerbates my worries of problems that arise when non-Middle Eastern have creative control over a product inspired by a Middle Eastern source material – and barely allow said people of Middle Eastern descent to have a leading voice in it. While reports indicate the movie production is making efforts to smooth over the problematics, I’m still skeptical. Sometimes the magic just gets lost in the orientalism.
Caroline Cao is our resident Geek Gal of Diva Gals Daily. She’s a screenwriter, playwright, poet, and film critic studying for her Nonfiction MFA at the New School and working on her first memoir. She has contributed her wit to Birth Movies Death, Film School Rejects, The Mary Sue, Bitch, and Reverse Shot. You’ll often find her writing Star Wars fanfics. Follow her on Twitter @maximinalist and Instagram @amaximinalist!
photo credit: Disney