I approached Aladdin, the latest offering from Disney Theatrical with a sense of excitement and trepidation. Could Disney recreate the magic of the film on stage without losing the magic and wonder? Could The Genie live up to the phenomenal performance of Robin Williams and a team of Disney’s finest animators? Would Aladdin trump the Lion King?
The answer to those questions is a triumphant – almost. Alan Williams‘ musical direction is top-notch, with electronic music programming by Jeff Marder ensuring that the score retains the sumptuous detail of the original soundtrack. Disney have taken a risk in removing Rajah the tiger and Abu the monkey – two of the best characters in the film – and replacing them with human chums for Princess Jasmine and street-rat Aladdin. It’s a dramatic decision which just about works, although loyal fans of the movie may feel at least a pang of regret.
In spite of any omissions, there is much to please fans of the Disney film. Agrabah, “City of flying carpets and soaring heroes” is lovingly reimagined in designs by Tony winner Bob Crowley, at times seeming to rely on highly traditional layers of decoupage as much as on the Disney animation. But the stage show’s colour palate nods significantly in both set and lighting to the sumptuous animated version to beautiful effect with “Arabian Nights” and whirling dervishes supplying just enough Middle-Eastern promise to whisk the audience from Old Compton Street to Persian Bazaar.
The Genie (Trevor Dion Nicholas) sits at the moral heart of the show and helps to establish the plot, which is handy. “It’s what’s inside that counts” may be the message, but this Genie has plenty on the outside too, with a fabulous line in high-camp, high-fashion, high-energy sparkle. And he’s not the only one – as he says himself “Even our poor people look fabulous”. Sometimes it’s a little more Kermit than Kismet.
Aladdin is probably as close as Disney gets to Pantomime, but there are parallels between what they’ve done here and what you’ll find in that most British of theatrical traditions. There are, for example, a few too many numbers early on which are just an excuse for a song and dance and don’t really add much to the plot. Aladdin himself (Dean John-Wilson) gets a little lost at times in the big company numbers and although he will probably set a few hearts a-flutter, he’s a bit more buff than boyish. I also wasn’t too sure about Aladdin and his chums performing what appeared to be some sort of street audition for Agrabah’s Got Talent. And there are a few too many corny jokes which occasionally fall flat.
A definite one-up on the film is the reinstatement of the beautiful “Proud of your Boy”. John-Wilson has a strong voice, and although it’s perhaps a little more reedy than warm, he does a great job with one of Alan Menken & Howard Ashman’s great numbers. The show also benefits from lyrics by Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin, but it’s always Menken and Ashman’s music that captures the soul.
Jasmine (Jade Ewen) first appears in disguise as a beggar woman, escaping her life as a Royal Princess (a trick which may have given Princess Diana inspiration for her nights out with Freddy Mercury). It’s here in the bazaar that she first bumps into Aladdin. Mayhem ensues and the two flee into Agrabah’s maze of back-streets. Palace guards and Jafar’s henchmen follow in hot pursuit but are too hammy at times – I wanted just a little more genuine drama and I’m sure kids can cope with scarier baddies?
Although beautiful sets, rich costumes and comedy baddies kept me entertained, about a third of the way into act one my mind began to drift a little. Here’s where I have to take my hat off to Disney – nothing could have prepared me for the cave of wonders. Possibly the most lavish set I’ve even seen on a West End stage with enough gold to make Midas blush. It also signals the arrival into the plot of the show’s greatest asset – a sassy Genie with a series of wonderful entrances and exits, normally involving a puff of smoke. This Genie likes his food as much as he likes his magic – “I eat curly fries. Don’t judge me!” There’s also a deliciously clever mash-up of Beauty & The Beast, Little Mermaid and Mulan and a fabulous game show with nods to Strictly Come Dancing and Bruce Forsythe which the mostly British audience lapped up. “You Ain’t Never had a friend like Me” is electrifying – fans of a big tap number with pyrotechnics gave it a near-standing ovation mid-show.
After a whistle-stop tour of the rules of wishes and a promise to use his third wish to set The Genie free, Aladdin is granted his desire to become Prince Ali, and heads to the Palace to woo the beautiful Princess Jasmine. Unsurprisingly it’s not plain sailing.
As the sun rises on Act Two, Genie returns looking dapper in a funky zoot-suited with Aladdin – now Prince Ali. But even a handsome prince can’t quite eclipse the costume changes reserved for the Genie who is, after all, possessed of some very powerful fashion advisors.
Jafar (Don Gallagher) perfectly blends comedy and threat. The royal vizier’s every word is delivered dripping with irony and sarcasm, and Iago (Peter Howe) brings delicious wit to what is a parrot personified.
The only real weak link is Jasmine’s father, the Sultan (Irvine Iqbal) who lacks any feeling of power or greatness, and possesses none of the humour of the film either.
Jasmine’s chambers are beautiful – with a vast circular window onto a beautiful Arabian sky. Despite originally rebuffing Prince Ali, it’s here that Jasmine gives in to her heart and the film’s great love scene is recreated to magnificent effect, cued by an echo of Aladdin’s line “Do you trust me?” as the pair take to the sky on a magic carpet. And I actually gasped – the magic carpet is amazing and hats off to the technical team for a genuinely astonishing illusion. Whether it was a fear of flying or first night nerves I don’t know, but here the vocals seemed strained – maybe it’s just not that easy singing on a flying carpet!
After an arrest for trespassing in the Princess’s private quarters, Aladdin is imprisoned – cue his buddies storming the Palace to free him, in a hugely entertaining musical number, “High Adventure”.
Act two only stumbles in a curious reprise of “Proud of your Boy” where Aladdin is decorated in the robes gifted him by the Sultan and ends up looking a little too much like Norma Desmond, proving that even when you’re royal sometimes less is more.
The concluding scenes are rushed, presumably to keep the running time down for younger audience members – a wiser move might have been to cut down the opening scenes and properly explain the final ones instead. But it’s a minor niggle. At its heart, Aladdin is a tale of morality. and learning the true value of being true to ourselves. I did find myself wishing that maybe Jasmine had the guts to walk away from the money and live with Aladdin in poverty – maybe that would really have really been a magic carpet ride with no strings attached? But there’s not getting away from the fact that Aladdin is a glittering addition to the West End, and one that families will love.
Tickets for Aladdin are now booking until 2017
Prince Edward Theatre
28 Old Compton St
London W1D 4HS
Running time: 2h30m including one interval