Saturday 26th May 2018 at the Prince Edward Theatre, London.
Arabian nights and Arabian days have been thrust upon the Prince Edward Theatre stage in swirling, sparkling colours thanks to this production of Disney’s Aladdin. Spectacle is where this show excels and I can imagine any child seeing this as an early or first experience of theatre would be desperate to return. I was a little disappointed by some of the choices in adapting Aladdin for the stage but this is undoubtedly a fully fledged West End giant of a production complete with towering sets, clever stage trickery, endless gorgeous costume changes and an array of enthusiastic, vibrant dance numbers. The music of Aladdin is the work of musical legend Alan Menken with lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice or Chad Beguel; the classics from the Disney film are preserved in the shape of Arabian Nights, One Jump Ahead, Prince Ali, Friend Like Me, and of course A Whole New World, but there are some new songs too; Proud of Your Boy, Somebody’s Got Your Back and High Adventure are a few examples and while some additions are admittedly more forgettable than others, each serve the story well. Casey Nicholaw directs and choreographs, creating a neatly packaged show which is absolutely determined to delight visually through high energy numbers perfectly embedded throughout and this staging of a Disney classic most definitely succeeds on the spectacle front.This production chooses to position the story primarily as a romance, spending less time on villains and Aladdin’s thrilling escapes and through this, a clear, crisp narrative is delivered. Casting is a strong point with both lead understudies giving earnest, rounded performances as the youngsters living lives in polarised circumstances yet sharing the same feelings of helplessness and entrapment. Aladdin is played by a charming, energised Antony Hewitt who delivers all key traits of this lovable scamp; quick on his feet, charitable to others and doe-eyed in love. Jasmine is played by Monica Swayne and delivers just as well with the defiant princess check list; beautiful, principled and equally adept at doe-eyed love and withering glares for the naysayers. The Sultan is played by a proud and warm Irvine Iqbal – a strong leader but a comical pushover when it comes to his forceful daughter. The real show-stopper performance is Trevor Dion Nicholas as the Genie; the production relies heavily on him for the insertion of modernised quips, contemporary reference points and all the comedy they can squeeze into one immortal being. Nicholas steals the show every time he makes an appearance and through an indefatigable energy and charm, he gives the show eighty percent of its comedy quota with total ease and gleeful flair. He’s a firm favourite as the roars at curtain call attest, so for Nicholas alone I’d probably make a return trip.While loyal to the key escapades of Aladdin, a number of things are cut in this piece for the sake of running time and presumably, in the name of cost effectiveness – something easily forgivable here as a fair few challenging elements are intelligently transposed for the stage, including the magic carpet and the Cave of Wonders, so I’m happy to forego Aladdin at the bottom of the sea. As a ‘for ever young’ Disney fan, I’m not so accepting of other choices though, as even though this is Disney’s Aladdin, there’s cross-over with the Panto take on the story in that some key characters have disappeared and others inserted; Abu the mischievous, adorable monkey has been replaced by a trio of enthusiastic pals – the gannet Babkak (Leon Craig), spritely Omar (Miles Barrow) and posturing Kassim (Daniel De Bourg). The gaggle of boyish companions are entertaining (and deliver some beautiful harmonies in High Adventure), but I’m puzzled by the removal of such a well loved character.Jasmine’s confidante of the animal kingdom, Raja is also cut and replaced by a collection of female attendants and I’m not convinced replacing the animals with people rather than simply adding more human characters is the right decision. In removing the animals, there’s an inevitable loss of key sources of comedy; no charmingly criminal actions of Abu, no comical threat from Raja, and nothing in the replacement characters to rival the comedy so readily available in the cut characters. Yes, stage adaptations can never be a carbon copy of the film original, but if it’s possible to bring each character of the animal kingdom to life on stage as is evident in Disney’s hugely successful The Lion King, then I’m not sure why a similar approach hasn’t been taken here. To include some puppetry and animal characters would bring a more satisfying version of the story to the stage while offering an additional layer to the piece by retaining lovable animal characters who are sorely missed in this version.Although not a cut character, we also have a new take on Iago the crafty sidekick to Jafar, played as a parrot in the film. In this production, Jafar (Don Gallagher) is joined by a human Iago (Nick Cavaliere) and while they make a good pairing, there’s again a loss of shine and comic opportunities for the so-called villains. In removing the sorcery of Jafar’s snake sceptre, Jafar also loses his bite and his sense of threat – in this version, he’s simply a schemer and a chancer, with a much smaller role, no real sense of unstoppable power and no real evil to be found, which is a real shame; Disney villains are the best kind because Disney is typically unafraid to conjure real evil and sinister flair, yet here the adaptation plays it safe, leaving poor Jafar in the margins when he’s best made use of front and centre. In fact I’ll go so far as to say that all threat is removed here; original fight direction from J. Allen Suddeth sees Aladdin’s pals fight off the soldiers so mildly that it’s almost slow motion without the style and this goes for all action which could be perceived as violent – each lunge and lash is underplayed and unnecessarily flimsy, making me miss the sense of danger which is of course quite pivotal in Aladdin’s story.Scenic design from Bob Crowley is ambitious and grand in both scale and aesthetic – the market place, the palace, Aladdin’s humble abode and the parade through the streets are brought to life with towering set pieces which rise up, fly in or arrive via the cast. The Cave of Wonders is by far the most impressive and creates spectacular visuals (benefitting considerably from Natasha Katz’s lighting designs) as a backdrop to the Genie’s superb rendition of Friend Like Me. Costume design from Gregg Barnes’s equally dazzling; changes are many and each arrival of new designs to the stage are met with great approval – particularly from the little ones sitting around me. It’s all colour, all sequins, all beautiful and all the time; male costumes are colourfully potent while the female costumes are gorgeously conceived and not a one is left wanting for elaborate beading or delicate embroidery. Nicholaw’s choreography draws on such costume designs and the pair work seamlessly to create truly captivating spectacle as a considerably large cast tap and twirl in unison, putting on a display wholly intended to impress the thousands of eyes watching without daring to blink. Additional visual spectacles include Illusion Designer Jim Steinmeyer’s theatrical sorcery with the magic carpet and various impressive Special effects designs from Jeremy Chernick.Aladdin is a real West End treat of great production values which never short-changes on the pleasures of musical theatre. It strays considerably from its film origins, sometimes through necessity and sometimes through disappointing decisions in the adaptation process, but what remains is a child-friendly, warm and fuzzy Disney tale. Filled to the brim with high energy musical numbers, theatrical trickery to delight and wonderful spectacle, this is a show deserving of its place in the West End.
Aladdin plays at the Prince Edward Theatre, London and you can find tickets here.
Note: all image credits to the production team. Images of Aladdin and Jasmine are not the actors mentioned here.