Warning: If you are not a fan of sequins, flashy dance numbers, near-pantomime characters or Disney in general, confine yourself to a lamp for the next 10,000 years, it will give you such a crick in the neck.
I feel I need to preface this review by first mentioning that Aladdin the Disney film is perhaps my favourite of the Disney franchise, mainly due to the late, great Robin Williams turn as the infamous blue genie. As a result (and I feel I am not alone in saying this) filling the shoes of the Genie on stage was going to be a monumental task. A task that, ironically, you’d probably need a wish granting Genie to fulfill. It turns out that the folks in charge of churning out Stage Musicals from the collection in the Disney vault had just that. Let’s be honest, the only reason you’re going to see this show is for the Genie…that and you’re wondering how in the hell they are going to make a carpet fly. Well, I can very confidently say you will not be disappointed in either.
For those who have been living under a sand dune or locked away inside a lamp since 1992, Aladdin follows the story of the poor orphan ‘streetrat’ of the shows name (played confidently by Dean John-Wilson) who falls for the Sultan of Agrabah’s daughter, Jasmine (played by the feminine powered Jade Ewen). Aladdin soon lands himself in the path of the evil Jafar (played with such dripping pantomimesque villainy by Don Gallagher) and his quest to become Sultan of Agrabah. After being trapped in the Cave of Wonders, Aladdin comes across a magical lamp that holds the all-powerful, all-comical, all-singing, all-dancing Genie (played by direct-from-broadway actor Trevor Dion Nicholas). Spoilers: It has a happy ending.
Disney veteran Alan Menken, broadway choreographer Casey Nicholaw and set designer Bob Crowley are the perfect triumvirate to bring Aladdin to the stage. All three mens skills are so artfully crafted and en pointe that nothing skips a beat. Gregg Barnes who played as Costume Designer must have one heck of a wardrobe backstage, the number of Prince Ali alone must have at least ten costume changes for its ensemble. Oh to be a fly on the wall!
Let’s begin with the visual effects of the show, the place where Disney has clearly thrown all its coin. Whether it’s the rows upon rows of sequin-filled costumes, the ovation-winning Friend Like Me or a freaking flying carpet (believe me, you’ll be looking closely), the spectacle of this show never falters. It’s clear that this is where the selling point of the show rests and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s captivating. You’ll oggle at the Cave of Wonders, you’ll witness real magic tricks, you might even see a fireworks display or two and you’ll love every minute of that spectacle. The trick that Disney manages to pull off time and time again is that they bring out the inner child in you and we continually thank them for it.
As the titular character Aladdin, John-Wilson brings that boyish charm of the streetrat with the heart of gold. Although at times he struggles to find the characters voice and may sometimes come across as two-dimensional, he hits all the right notes musically and more than pulls of the comic timing that’s been granted to this stage version of Aladdin. It’s a tough job playing second fiddle to the Genie when you’re the protagonist, however he holds his own well.
Instead of the loving Abu of the Disney film, the character has been split into three roles that serve as Aladdin’s partners in crime. Babkak, Omar and Kassim (played by Nathan Amzi, Rachid Sabitri and Stephen Rahman-Hughes respectively) represent the three different personalities of Abu, Hunger, Loyalty and Courage. Sadly, the three friends never accomplish to be anything more than under-developed archetypes. Babkak, the larger of the three who constantly discusses food and makes the related puns, most of which fell flat with the audience. Omar, whose character is never really discovered until halfway through the second act; it turns out he’s the dancer of the group, I must have missed that setup. Kassim seems to be the most developed out of the three and the one granted the closest friendship with Aladdin. Although in saying this, the three mens song High Adventure is a glee-filled romp that is highly choreographed in time with the score and is wholly reminiscent of a Benny Hill routine that you’ll giggle along the way.
Jade Ewen plays Princess Jasmine with enough confidence and female empowerment it is as if she is lifted right from the original film and placed on stage. This staged version of Aladdin is not afraid to shy away from lines that speak about feminism in our modern society and Ewen embraces it. I feel confident that we’ll see Ewen in many more things when she eventually departs this production. Keep an eye out for her currently in-production solo material.
The villain of the show is the domineering figure Jafar and Don Gallagher embodies every aspect of what that entails. Gallagher’s voice acting is superb as he sneers through the mention of Aladdin’s name or growls for the lamp. You will love to hate him. As is done with Abu, Iago has also taken human form, played by Peter Howe, doing his best to do just under 50% of a Gilbert Gottfried impersonation. Howe fits perfectly into the role of Iago, who, as the line says, ‘parrots’ Jafar (see what they did there?). Howe hits the sidekicks comic timing perfectly and helps to the define the ‘dastardly duo’ role that is needed in the story.
Now for the main event, drumroll please, that’s right the Genie. First of all, I wish I was a large black man (can I say that?) so I could play this role. My god is it a role. There are very few roles in Musical Theatre that allow for improvisation, audience corralling, pop-culture referencing and show-stopping numbers. The role of the Genie does all this and more. Trevor Dion Nicholas is clearly having the time of his life up on stage and bringing us along for the ride. Needless to say, Friend Like Me is the show stopper. You will believe in magic, or at least Theatre Magic, when he is done. I believe Robin Williams would be proud of this Genie.
Ironically, what makes Aladdin a brilliant production is also its greatest downfall, the Genie is so superb and loveable that you are counting the minutes until he finally appears again in a waft of smoke.
As spectacular as the production elements and characters are, I can’t help but feel that the production team either ran out of ideas for the finale or simply decided that after so much glamour, more simpler techniques were needed. Either way, the ending was a tad lackluster to finish the show (and why no encore of Friend Like Me?). Other numbers such as One Jump Ahead would also have benefitted from a few tricks as they fell flat and did not bring as much of that Disney spark to them. But hey, not every number can have a standing ovation right? Even Disney has its limits.
The carpet flew you guys, it actually flew!
Aladdin is now playing in London’s West End, New York’s Broadway and Australia’s Capitol Theatre as well as Germany and Japan. Click the link below for information and tickets.