Disney’s critically acclaimed and popularly adored 1992 movie Aladdin was arguably the pinnacle of the ‘Disney Renaissance’ of the 1990s that kicked off with The Little Mermaid, and peaked with Beauty and the Beast, and The Lion King. Borrowing the basis of its plot from Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, a folk tale from a compilation of ancient Middle Eastern stories often known as The Arabian Nights in English, it tells the story of a young thief in the fictional city of Agrabah.
After falling in love with the Sultan’s daughter, Aladdin (Ainsley Melham) is tricked into retrieving a lamp from the ‘Cave of Wonders’ by the Sultan’s Grand Vizier, Jafar (Adam Murphy), only to discover the lamp contains a trapped genie (Michael James Scott) who will now grant him three wishes. The plot is thickened by the impossibility of Aladdin’s romance with the princess Jasmine (Hiba Elchikhe) and Jafar’s desire to usurp the Sultan’s rule.
Thanks to the incredible performance of the late Robin Williams as the voice of the Genie in the movie, the animated Aladdin is often considered Disney’s funniest animated feature ever made. Combined with the fantastical nature of Genie’s appearance in the film, it would seem a difficult feat to replicate that genius (no pun intended) on stage. Yet through book writer Chad Begulin and a fabulous performance by Michael James Scott (most recently seen on Broadway as the Minstrel in Something Rotten!) this more human genie is no less enchanting and magical.
Warmly introducing us to the story with some fourth-wall breaking banter, if ever there were a character who can get away with this usually cringe inducing kind of localised routine, it’s the Genie, and Scott has all the requisite charm to instantly create rapport with the audience. This then provides a great set-up for the vibrantly colourful and wonderfully choreographed ‘Arabian Nights’ opening number.
But it’s Scott’s performance in the show-stopping ‘Friend Like Me’ that pays best tribute to Williams and is the absolute highlight of the show. That’s not to underestimate the input of all the other departments that shoot this ‘Cave of Wonders’ number into the stratosphere. Bob Crowley’s set design looks even more spectacularly sparkling in gold than it did in the Broadway production, while Gregg Barnes’ incredibly beauteous and bountiful costumes must require a team of backstage dressers as nimble and numerous as the incredibly buff ensemble members that fill them out perfectly.
Also easy on the eye and ear is Ainsley Melham as Aladdin, the thief with a heart of gold who just wants to make his unseen mother ‘Proud of Your Boy’. Melham’s charming and precise performance immediately wins over the audience, but decisions made in the creative process to include this heartfelt number and water down Aladdin’s wayward nature overall, have defused the character and what it was that made him so beloved in the film. Melham does a brilliant job, but he’s working uphill.
Likewise, Hiba Elchikhe’s Jasmine doesn’t come across as smart and sassy as she does privileged and petulant. Not her fault, for as beautifully as she might sing the pleasant new songs from Howard Ashman (with lyrics by Begulin), ‘These Palace Walls’ and duet with Aladdin, ‘A Million Miles Away’ they both feel like gap-filler numbers in the first act that fail to do anything other than provide stark contrast to the spectacle of ‘Friend Like Me’.
Thankfully, Melham and Elchikhe’s second act duet, well-known chart hit ‘A Whole New World’, lives up to literal sky-high expectations, as the magic carpet ride is truly that. Sending the couple soaring into the starry night sky and eliciting gasps of astoundment from the audience, I challenge those not sat in the front rows to see how this bewitching illusion is achieved.
One change brought through the stage adaptation of the film that enhances the story particularly well is the introduction of Aladdin’s three friends Kassim (Adam-Jon Fiorentino), Babkak (Troy Sussman) and Omar (Robert Tripolino). The trio add both comic relief and tension that are left wanting by the omission of Aladdin’s movie offsider, Abu the monkey, and the life-saving capabilities of the magic carpet in the film. When Aladdin’s ‘Prince Ali’ act at the palace goes awry and Jafar has him arrested for being in the princess’s room unsupervised, Babkak, Omar and Kassim go to his rescue in ‘High Adventure’ an extremely fun number with a sword routine reminiscent of the tankard clinking ‘Gaston’ in the stage adaptation of Beauty and the Beast. Fiorentino is a dashing and headstrong Kassim, delivering an alluring performance, but the character does push Aladdin into the background at times, exhibiting traits that would be expected of the lead. Tripolino’s comic timing as Omar is simply spot on and truly charming, while Sussman hits all his marks and conveys Babkak’s funny, food obsessed lines as you’d vocally expect them, but with a disappointingly soulless delivery.
Adam Murphy is perfectly arch as Jafar, filling out the panto-style character just as you want him to be, evil enough to be menacing, but not so scary as to frighten the children. Jafar’s parrot from the movie, Iago, is interpreted on stage as a human character, a decision that allows humour to be artistically woven into Jafar’s scenes of plotting and scheming as he has an offsider to bounce off. Being an anthropomorphised character, it makes sense that this role is always cast with an actor of diminutive height, and Aljin Abella is simply excellent in this comic role, but to routinely cast the ‘parrot’ with an Asian actor feels a bit off colour. Here’s hoping an actor of any ethnicity would be just as likely to be cast.
When it comes to the stage adaptations of Disney animated films, Aladdin towers over the theatrical versions of Tarzan, The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Little Mermaid, but it fails to soar to the heights of the stage’s Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, and that’s partly due to some odd directorial choices from Casey Nicholaw. There seems an insistence within the direction and choreography to play everything in a very big and cheesy way. Subtlety is certainly not the order of the day, meaning that more nuanced performances, especially for Aladdin and Jasmine’s characters aren’t possible, leaving this production aimed more squarely at the family audience than its Disney Theatrical forebears with their more age-diverse appeal. Not that that’s a bad thing, it’s just worth knowing that for adults, there’s not a lot of depth to this version of the Aladdin story. Ironically, Nicholaw has by coincidence another production he has directed and choreographed in Melbourne right now with The Book of Mormon, which is full of intellectual nuance!
Regardless of these reservations, being Disney, this production is slick and easily recommendable, especially for fans of the film and its music. The performances are strong, Nicholaw’s choreography is visually stunning and there’s enough spectacle to impress even the most cynical theatregoer.
Aladdin is now playing at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne’s East End Theatre District.