Aladdin, Capitol Theatre, Sydney

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.

Aladdin and Lamp - Ainsley Melham_Photo By Deen van Meer

Ainsley Melham as Aladdin. Photo: Deen van Meer

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.

Friend Like Me_Photo By Deen van Meer

Michael Scott James and Ainsley Melham in Aladdin. Photo: Deen van Meer

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.

Jesus Christ Superstar

Perth Arena, May 31

JESUS Christ Superstar was the first big musical I saw as an adult so it’s always had a special place in my heart and memory. It was 1972, Sydney’s Capitol Theatre had been smothered in what was then an extremely cool colour, Mission Brown, and Jon English was very, very hot. Australia had got in early with Superstar. It opened on Broadway in October 1971 and in Sydney in May 1972, a few months before London. After their huge success in Sydney, Jim Sharman was tapped to direct the London production and Brian Thomson to design it.  How good was that?

After failing to secure good seats for one of the Sydney performances of this latest incarnation of Superstar I hit upon a solution. I review musical theatre for The Australian. Why not offer to take myself to Perth to cover the show? Bingo.

A scene from Jesus Christ Superstar

A scene from Jesus Christ Superstar

Thus I found myself in Perth Arena, the city’s spanking new entertainment venue, along with 12,500 others, give or take. A bonus was the extra frisson due to the presence of local boy made very, very good, Tim Minchin, playing the old Jon English role of Judas. Also from the London cast was Melanie C, former Spice Girl and a formidable Mary Magdalene. Jon Stevens, a former Judas of note – he was in that record-breaking run of 84 arena performances in 1992 – got a huge reception on entering and proved to be brilliantly cast as Pontius Pilate. As he started singing a man behind me said approvingly: “Now there’s a real voice.”

In the UK radio presenter Chris Moyles appeared as Herod and apparently wasn’t any great shakes as a singer. But there’s an element of novelty in the role so it didn’t seem too bizarre to bring in popular game show host Andrew O’Keefe for the Australian tour. As it happens the man can hold a tune and killed it as the King. Who knew?

To top things off, even this concentration of celebrity wattage couldn’t dim the true star of the evening – Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1972 rock oratorio. Given an astute, persuasive setting that evokes Occupy London specifically and contemporary protest movements more generally, Jesus Chris Superstar is as exciting now as it was when breaking ground for musical theatre 40 years ago.

Having originated in London last year the production – directed by Laurence Connor with designs by Mark Fisher (set) and Patrick Woodroffe (lights) – is tight as a drum. The stage is dominated by a staircase with the 10 band members on tiers to left and right. A huge screen at the back projects slogans and images of protest and close-ups of the performers and cleverly seems as much a theatrical response to our media-saturated world as a necessity for those in the cheap seats.

Herod’s appeal to the crowd to decide whether Jesus is the real deal or not is wittily expressed as being put to an audience vote via text message; Judas’s death and Jesus’s crucifixion are powerfully staged, and the 39 lashes meted out to Jesus are depicted unsparingly. Only the Victoria’s Secret-style angels who appear near the end strike a slightly tacky note. Otherwise the production is exceptionally well judged and it’s tremendously well sung.

Tim Minchin as Judas

Tim Minchin as Judas

Minchin is the revelation and the linchpin. In superb voice, he kickstarts the show with an anguished Heaven on Their Minds and establishes Judas as a serious, conflicted man. So, where is Jesus in all this? Superstar gives Judas a chance to put his side of the story and the musical is weighted in his favour. Even so, Ben Forster’s Jesus is at a further disadvantage when put up against the all-conquering Minchin. Forster can sing, no doubt about it, but I wish I had found him more charismatic. He seemed self-pitying and a bit of a chancer rather than full of messianic zeal, although to be fair I must add that at this first performance in the Australian tour mine was clearly a minority opinion.

Some of Rice’s lyrics haven’t stood the test of time but others still really cut the mustard. “When we retire we can write the gospels …” croon the woozy apostles at the Last Supper. What a great line. Meanwhile, the stream of great songs pours forth – hard rock, soft rock, ballads, anthems, a touch of music hall. It’s an eclectic mix that miraculously hangs together, delivered by a great band at a sound level that sweeps the audience up but is at the same time considerate. Bravo to the engineers.

Postscript: Superstar is a nimble show. O’Keefe got in a quick and nifty Eddie McGuire gag at the Perth opening. Hosanna, Hey-sanna! I do hope today’s short attention spans and thirst for new scandals don’t result it its being dropped along the way.

Remaining performances are in Sydney, June 7-9; Brisbane, June 11-12 and 18; Melbourne, June 14-16.

This is an extended version of a review that appeared in The Australian on June 3.