Disney Theatrical Productions, August 11.
“Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess,” said Oscar Wilde, who obviously wasn’t in a position to advise Disney on Aladdin but would not have been able to fault its abundance. It confidently contrives a standing ovation before interval, secure in the knowledge there’ll be another one at the end.
Sure, there’s a wholesome story somewhere in there about being honest, generous and true to yourself, but essentially Aladdin is a super-charged salaam to fabulousness.
The beloved 1992 animated film for children has been thankfully shorn of the unpleasant racial stereotyping with which the movie opens and turned into a type of The Road to … comedy-fantasy-adventure yarn where the rules of Aristotelian unity don’t exactly apply. If Bing Crosby popped up in hologram form to croon a number or two you wouldn’t be surprised.
In bringing the film to the stage Disney clearly realised its flaws. They didn’t manage to eliminate them all but took the diversionary path of giving a makeover that makes Priscilla Queen of the Desert look demure. Aladdin takes place in an alternate universe where too much is never enough. And to be fair, the gold-plated limos of Middle East epigones seen about London these days attest to a committed love affair with display in certain stratas of society.
There are, according to informed sources, half a million Swarovski crystals bedecking Gregg Barnes’s eye-popping costumes, which gives some idea of the intense devotion to bling. Even the Sultan could comfortably double as a disco mirror ball. It was lovely to see veteran New Zealand actor George Henare comporting himself with such dignity while decked out like Donna Summer. Then there’s the flying carpet, giving Aladdin its astonishing “how on earth do they do that?” moment. In a film such effects are business as usual; on stage they fill the audience with heart-swelling awe.
Aladdin is – not wrongly – billed as a family musical and youngsters will undoubtedly enjoy the spectacle (Bob Crowley’s saturated-colour sets are beautiful), but this ebullient, knowing, magpie of a piece has plenty of extras for grown-ups who know their showbiz.
Director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw is as shameless in his borrowings as he is expert in their use. Panto, vaudeville, swashbuckling adventure, golden-era Hollywood, old-fashioned romance, newfangled technology, high camp and low humour mingle agreeably, as do a dazzlingly eclectic array of dance styles. And I rather enjoyed the way the baddies had their plotting scenes in front of a drop, so reminiscent of the technology-poor old days when set changes had to be covered by a dialogue scene.
The undisputed ace in the hand, though, is the fourth-wall-breaking Genie. His big – no, huge – number Friend Like Me is a Busby Berkley extravaganza crammed into eight exhausting, enchanting minutes. American actor Michael James Scott is made to work hard for his Act I ovation and earned every second of it on opening night. He has a smile that lights up the room and a warm, cheerful demeanour that’s incredibly winning. He’s like the funny best pal you’d love to have.
The rest of the terrific cast manages to hold its own remarkably well against Scott’s formidable presence. Adam Murphy (Jafar) and Aljin Abella (Iago) are superbly hiss-worthy villains and Adam-Jon Fiorentino, Troy Sussman and Robert Tripolino are a hoot as Aladdin’s sidekicks. Ainsley Melham (Aladdin) and Arielle Jacobs (Princess Jasmine) have sweet, believable chemistry and sing charmingly. Nicholaw has them meet in a manner reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet at the ball – a big dancing scene in the market brings them face to face – and this brief moment resonates, as does Melham’s scene with James when Aladdin promises to free the Genie.
Such pleasures do a reasonable job of obscuring the weaknesses. Aladdin’s mates get loads of zappy stage time, while Jasmine’s besties are pretty much limited to “you go girl” background chatter. That’s a big irritant. Jacobs makes a strong fist of what she’s given, but Jasmine isn’t much more than a pretty cipher.
Chad Beguelin’s book is much stronger on bon mots than plot, dispensing groan-worthy puns and somewhat clunky exposition. The realisation that the Genie needed to be introduced to the audience early in the piece both gives and takes away. The character is a certified winner but when he has to tell the audience not to miss him too much after his comprehensive opening number Arabian Nights you know the balance isn’t going to be right in Act I. When Arabian Nights is over – in it the Genie tells you what you are about to see in rather a lot of detail and if you were pressed for time you could leave after that and know the whole story – you are impatient for his return. Which admittedly is worth the wait.
As for Alan Menken’s score (with lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Beguelin), I don’t think this one is going to trouble the Great American Songbook but by Genie it’s got earworms. End-to-end earworms. They are still cavorting happily in my head, and I expect that to continue for some time.