30 May 2004 | Bob A-2
Cole Porter's Aladdin: disappointingly mundane children's play with "adult" songs squeezed in
After more than forty years of owning and enjoying the record album of Cole Porter's final musical Aladdin, I was finally given the opportunity to see the show itself via the (apparently) live broadcast of February 1958. I must say, even after due warnings of how the show was "summarily dismissed" by critics at the time, that it is a tremendous entertainment letdown.
Cyril Ritchard, probably most famous for his portrayal of Mr. Darling/Capt. Hook in the Broadway and television productions of Peter Pan, is placed in the unenviably silly role of narrator and villain Sui Generis (a pun on "chop suey," I assume), who goes through the opening patter song Come to the Supermarket (the show is a bit topheavy with comic novelty songs) in a stereotypically Chinese attitude with hands hidden in sleeves and hopping up and down to music's rythm. Other numerous celebrities in respective roles (Dennis King, Basil Rathbone, Una Merkel and Howard Morris, plus Sal Mineo in the title role, Anna Maria Alberghetti as his Princess and Geoffrey Holder as the Genie) don't fare much better with the childlike level of dialog provided by S J Perelman.
If it were a children's play, then fine, but the relative sophistication of the Cole Porter songs make an uncomfortable transition to music. The well-known story of Aladdin and his magic lamp remains intact, if somewhat truncated, but with nowhere near the musical and dramatic dimensions of Disney's (okay, Eisner's) animated film of later years, nor even the contemporaneous Aladdin film "starring" Mr. Magoo. Porter's own deteriorating involvement in the show due to his increasingly painful leg problems and upcoming operation may help to explain the so-so level of integration between songs and plot.
I still strongly recommend the cast album from CBS, more recently rereleased as a compact disc -- and in stereo -- but it seems that its performances and arrangements are not at all representative of the show itself. I conclude that Mr. Porter had arranged for this "concept album" to be produced with the dramatic and musical continuity of a legit stage musical, on the speculation that a remounting on Broadway might result from the positive exposure. In fact there was a London stage production a few years later, for which a record album was also released.
To be fair, I must say that Aladdin's songs are not equally admired by all listeners, although a few consistently stand out, such as the aforementioned Come to the Supermarket (covered by Streisand in her '63 solo album), and two other comic numbers for Ritchard. Dennis King gets two reprises of a pretty-nice Trust Your Destiny to Your Star, and Mineo's love song I Adore You has a catchy simplicity I like to compare to Rodgers' and Hammerstein's last song together, Edelweiss (others may find the Porter song a bit __too__ simple). By the way, Porter's own last song ever written, Wouldn't it Be Fun, is only on the album and not in the show itself.
I was aware, from the rather pessimistic account given in the liner notes of the CD release, that Aladdin was either genuinely bad or simply considered unworthy by critics because of the wholesale quality and production values attributed to television; nevertheless I'd had hopes that Cole Porter's Aladdin would show potential as a musical on a level with other shows of that period. I will always like it to a fair extent, and I think others will too, but will never again attach to it the youthful wonder that I'd once had for the show as I thought I'd known it.