Aladdin, On Broadway, was a bit like a Cronut: sickly sweet, naughty and kinda fun, a specific concoction designed to give one a rush but unsure of exactly what it was. In the sumptuous Prince Edward Theatre, Aladdin is more like the Genie’s lamp: exotic, old-fashioned and full of surprising delights. Like many other Broadway shows before it, Aladdin has a superior cast in the West End and, as Robert Frost would say, “that has made all the difference”.
Two small boys sit near me. Beaming, but anxious, parents look around hesitantly, almost apologetically. One of the boys has a stuffed toy – a Genie it appears. He waves it above his head with fury. His brother insists on moving forward. The parents shuffle around, trying to make everything calm.
None of this bodes well.
Lights out, curtain up, band in full swing – and both boys stop all movement, bodies rigid to attention, eyes wide open, mouths cracked with wonder. The littlest can’t believe there is a real genie on stage. Their excitement is undeniably infectious.
In the finale, these little guys are bopping around to the music, tiny volcanoes of pure, unrestrained exhilaration. Tiny one asks Dad what will happen next. “We go home”, Dad informs him, picking him up, smiling, comforting. “Can’t we watch it again?” he says.
Older brother sighs. “It’s finished, Jacob.”
The little lad looks blissfully at the safety curtain. “It will never be finished for me.”
This is Casey Nicholaw’s trim, taut and twinkling production of Aladdin, which opened tonight at the Prince Edward Theatre. An adaptation of the successful Disney film (Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Sir Tim Rice), this production is billed as the West End ‘s new musical – despite having played on Broadway for over two years.
But, in truth, the description is correct, because this is a much better version of the show that premiered on Broadway. Lessons have been learnt, staging has been improved, patter has been updated/modified, and real care has been taken with (most of) the casting of the principals.
Nicholaw is a gifted and imaginative choreographer and he ensures that the huge production numbers here are visually exciting in every way. Sassy, silly, parodic (the 42nd Street send-up is just terrific), the dancing covers all fields – but it is performed with well-drilled panache and enthusiastic vigour by the cast. Ben Clare, the UK associate choreographer, should take a bow.
The choreography is one of the brilliant things about Aladdin. Another is Bob Crowley’s truly thrilling set designs. Crowley makes everything exotic, intriguing. The cave where Aladdin finds the lamp is sheer joy to behold; the bazaar is gaudy, colourful and cheerfully low rent; the palace is sumptuous without the need for heavy set changes; the evil lair of Jafar is created with nothing but a cloth and lighting. But it all works. The use of intricate lattice work brings refined and ornamental beauty continuously.
Gregg Barnes’ costumes are dizzying, a riot of vibrant colours and whimsical fabric. They evoke an old Hollywood feel and a modern Bollywood sensibility at once, quite marvellously. Everyone, at all times, looks spectacular. There are seemingly endless quick costume changes for the ensemble, but they are all managed with brilliant efficiency. (There is actually a great game to be played following the changes made by different cast members in the one production number!)
Crucially, this is not a staging of the film. It is an adaptation. Those who expect the cinematic experience will be disappointed. But those who come with an open mind will find plenty to enjoy.
Indeed, the most astonishing moment outdoes the film: Crowley’s glorious starfield backdrop for Aladdin and Jasmine’s magic carpet ride is enchanting, romantic and emotional. (Little Jacob almost weed with excitement – and who could blame him?) One still wishes the carpet soared above those in the stalls, but, nevertheless, it was a gloriously theatrical and heartfelt moment.
Alan Williams provides expert musical direction. One laments the absence of the kind of orchestra which made the film score swell and swoon, but the sixteen piece orchestra here gives good jazz, good strings and good brass, so there is a solid sense of support for the vocal work. Ken Travis’ crisp sound design achieves near perfect balance and diction is at a premium.
The ensemble don’t just look terrific (the Genie’s line about no body fat in the land rings pretty true) they really sing up a sound storm too. The huge set pieces (Arabian Nights, Friend Like Me, Prince Ali) all prove a real pleasure for the ears.
What this version has all over the Broadway one is a sense of cohesion. Chad Beguelin’s book is still haphazard, and aspects of it simply don’t work in a dramatic sense, but here Nicholaw has adopted a clear cartoon approach to proceedings which allows the pastiche narrative to function in a comprehensible way. Undoubtedly aware of the appeal of pantomime in the UK, Nicholaw laces the style of performance with tropes from that genre. It all works far better in the West End , complete with Tommy Cooper references, a delicious send up of Strictly Come Dancing and a delightful, exuberant “melody” from previous Howard Ashman and Alan Menken hits. “Try the grey stuff, it’s delicious” was one of many in-joke quips from the Genie that raised good laughs.
From the very first instant he appears in a spotlight, Trevor Dion Nicholas’ Genie means business – of the comical, spectacular and barn-stormingly brilliant kind. He has energy in spades and of the nuclear kind – he explodes around the show, like a human alka-seltzer, bursting with zinging, zippy and zesty exuberance. Whenever he is onstage, it is impossible not to watch his every move. His rapport with the audience – to whom he speaks directly often – blooms and grows, until he feels like he is everyone’s friend.
Nicholas has much better diction than James Monroe Iglehart did on Broadway (and he won a Tony award) and, for my money, gives a more complete and complex performance. In many ways, the Genie is a ridiculous character, but Nicholas masters every aspect, and when the time comes for him to be hurt by Aladdin, he finds a coherent way to make the magical mirthmaker a real character, capable of depth of feeling. He can master jazz-hands jollity as well as full heart empathy.
He works spectacularly well with Dean John-Wilson’s Aladdin and they establish a genuine rapport. In every way, it is a vibrant bravura performance and doubtless Nicholas will win awards. He even manages to almost completely dispel the memory of the Robin Williams voiced character from the film. His glittery gold head, his skillful dance routines, his high, unerring tenor voice, his sly smile, his nod-and-a-wink delivery, and his unending ability to surprise all combine to produce one of the performances of 2016.
Don Gallagher provides the perfect counter-point to Nicholas’s wild excess. Controlled Machiavellian menace, venomous syllables, a sense of corruption and ambitious poison that could curdle milk from a mile away, Gallagher makes Jafar the epitome of cartoon evil. He doesn’t overplay any second, finding the precisely right style to make the Sultan’s Chief Adviser throb with avuncular venom.
With a deliberately ludicrous maniacal mad laugh, rich and throaty, (Jacob jumped!) and superb, dry comic timing, Gallagher garners many laughs. He makes Jafar a worthy, wonderfully ruthless megalomaniac; quite different from The Lion King’s Scar, but equally memorable.
Wilson makes a fair fist of the titular role and really excels at the “diamond in the rough” aspect of the character. Rough and tumble he can do; inner angst is not his forte. But, that said, he makes Aladdin a winning lad, someone the audience wants to win in the end. He is not helped by Beguelin’s book which tries to make Aladdin more complex than he needs to be. All of the business with the three friends, Kassim (Stephen-Rahman Hughes), Babkak (Nathan Amzi) and Omar (Rachid Sabitri), is poorly written and despite all four men working hard, those scenes never shine.
There are no issues with Wilson in the looks or dance departments; he is an attractive leading man and he dances with carefree skill, really throwing himself into the big numbers. He does well with cheeky comedy, but not so well with the more poignant aspects of the script. Remorse does not sit well with him. Nor does anxiety.
Vocally, he is up to the task but he does not let his natural tone surface much, preferring to adopt the “Broadway twang” style which can be so irritating. He is at his best in the Proud Of Your Boy number (not from the film and effectively Aladdin’s version of Part Of My World from Little Mermaid) and makes that quite touching.
As Jasmine, Jade Ewen is beautiful in every way. She looks splendid and carries off Barnes’ costumes with grace and film-star style. Her slightly argumentative and determined take on the Princess is welcome; there is no need for Jasmine to be a wimp, a spoilt brat or a petulant tyrant. Ewen finds a nice level, properly expressing her respect for her father and her disillusionment with a system that condemns women to lives with impossibly awful men.
Ewen and Wilson have good chemistry, but not great chemistry. They both need to work harder to make the scenes they have together burn more brightly. If every scene between them had the intoxicating power of the magic carpet ride scene, they would be an extraordinary stage couple.
Irvine Iqbal makes a terrific Sultan, a man trapped by tradition, desperate to provide for his daughter and foolishly advised by the traitorous Jafar. He is funny and regal and sings very well to boot. He makes the part come alive in a way that simply did not occur on Broadway.
Conversely, Peter Howe misses almost every mark as Iago, a role which was a complete joy on Broadway. His great error is not to take his comic lead from Gallagher’s Jafar; he entirely misses the mini-Me potential of the role and becomes totally lost in the great swoops of Jafar’s cloak. It’s a wasted opportunity.
Michelle Chantelle Hopewell is quite magnificent in her various cameos. She has a sultry, sexy and powerful voice, capable of great shivery phrases, which she harnesses to electric effect. Her comic timing and sense of the moment is spot on. She is one of those great performers who can contribute seamlessly to an ensemble but who can stand-out, in a second, when the moment requires it.
The entire ensemble did terrific work, but especially attention grabbing (in a good way, not a focus pulling way) were Briony Scarlett, Alex Pinder, Seng Henk Goh, Melanie Elizabeth and Ethan Le Phong.
Special mention should be made of Natasha Katz’ glorious lighting design which enhances and amplifies the effect of Crowley’s set design and Nicholaw’s direction and choreography. And whoever is responsible for the flashy costume reveals for both Genie and Jafar should be applauded – Jacob’s eyes were never wider than at those points.
This is a family musical, not Sondheim or even Rodgers and Hammerstein. It would be unfair to compare it to other musicals currently playing in the West End as if it were of their ilk. Even though, it stands up well.
And if every performance affects a single child the way this one affected Jacob, it will be an unqualified triumph.