Aladdin arrived on cinema screens in late 1992, going on to earn US$504 million (A$654.45 million) at the box office worldwide. In fact, the film was the high grossing cinema release of the year.
So, it’s hardly surprising that Disney Theatrical Productions decided the film would join The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Mary Poppins, among other titles, as the subject for one of its musical theatre endeavours. Aladdin opened in New York City in February 2014 and was subsequently nominated for five Tony Awards. Two and a half years later (and hot off the heels of the London production opening), Aladdin is on stage in Australia, premiering at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre.
Based on a Middle Eastern folktale, Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, the musical tells the story of a young homeless man (Ainsley Melham), scrounging out a living in the fictional city of Agrabah (a name which, according to the film’s director, John Musker, was devised after the letters in ‘Baghdad’ were used to create a jumbled anagram). His fortunes look to change dramatically when he comes into possession of a magic lamp. The lamp is home to a genie (Michael James Scott), whose nigh omnipotent power makes him able to grant almost any wish Aladdin desires, including granting him the wealth and status to make him an attractive suitor to Princess Jasmine (Arielle Jacobs) and to win the approval of her father, the Sultan (George Henare).
But when Aladdin finds himself on the verge of having everything he wants, it dawns on him it’s all been achieved only by pretending to be someone and something he is not, and the question is, does he have too much integrity to continue the charade?
Aladdin fans will remember the music of the original film, penned by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, but may be surprised to realise that the film score only comprised a handful of songs. So, in bringing Aladdin to the stage, three songs written for the film (but ultimately not used) were reintroduced, as well as four new songs by Menken and Chad Beguelin.
As is true of any Disney work, Aladdin is laden with socially relevant themes – the importance of being true to one’s self, valuing those things that truly matter above superficial riches, and the overarching importance of being able to live and feel a true sense of freedom. Some of its themes have become stronger on stage than they were in the 90-minute film, owing to book writer Beguelin’s fleshing out of the script to create the two-and-a-half hour stage work.
The themes of Aladdin are delivered in a package that offers spectacular theatrical entertainment from start to finish. And if the opening night audience offers any indication, the adults in the room will likely leave the Capitol Theatre as giddy with excitement as the children many of them have accompanied.
Visually, Aladdin is one of the most impressive shows ever seen on stage in Australia. Over the course of the show, a total of 70 tonnes of scenery appears and disappears. Additionally, the cast of 37 adorn themselves in 337 costumes, made using 1,225 different fabrics, 712 styles of beads, around 500,000 Swarovski crystals and 161 pairs of custom-made shoes. It’s one of the largest musical theatre productions ever mounted on our shores.
From the moment the curtain rises, we see the incomparable attention to detail in the sets and costumes. Clean and crisp colour palettes characterise the look for each scene, and the quality of Gregg Barnes’ individual costume pieces is stunning. Similarly, Bob Crowley’s scenic design is a gorgeous visualisation of the fictitious Middle Eastern city, from the vibrant and bustling marketplace of the opening scene to a simple but spectacular rendering of the Sultan’s palace, the city of Agrabah never looks ordinary. It’s a rare experience to sit in a theatre in which an audience bursts into applause at the site of a set, as was the case on opening night as the opulent Cave of Wonders took shape.
There’s some magic too, of course, bought to us by internationally acclaimed illusion designer, Jim Steinmeyer, best known to local audiences for taking Mary Poppins to new heights (literally). He’s conquered the challenge of delivering one of the show’s most important moments – the magic carpet ride, during which the two leads duet on signature tune, ‘A whole new world’. It’s a moment likely to leave most scratching their heads as to precisely how the ‘magic’ has been achieved. It’s a show-stopping sequence.
And while its gobsmackingly glorious visuals are an important piece of what makes Aladdin on stage such a triumph, the performances are delivered by a powerhouse cast who work to maximise the high impact of the show.
As Aladdin, Melham is outstanding – a true triple-threat performer. He acts the part of the goofy but good-hearted title character without fault, and demonstrates his versatility as a dancer, especially impressing in a high-energy tap sequence. And as a singer, Melham is excellent, lending a rich tone to his delivery of many of the show’s most crucial sung moments. His talent is world class, and this is clearly only the beginning of what we’ll see from him on Australian stages in the years to come.
In the role of Jasmine, Arielle Jacobs is the ideal fit, an absolute joy to watch. She’s sweet but strong-headed, smart but idealistic, and her chemistry with co-star Melham is excellent. She sings wonderfully and is as close to a real live manifestation of the Disney princess as one could imagine.
As the surly and sinister Grand Vizier of the Sultan, Jafar, Murphy sells the role, possessing the gravitas required to do so. And as Jafar’s off-sider, Iago, Aljin Abella is hysterical, helping to provide some of the show’s best comedic moments.
And then there’s Scott in the role of Genie. To say it’s an unenviable task stepping into a role made famous by the late Robin Williams is an understatement. However, the wise decision made by creatives here was to revisit the version of the character originally envisaged for the film. Before Williams became involved, composers Alan Menken and Howard Ashman imagined the genie as a hip New York City jazz singer in the vein of African-American performers Fats Waller and Cab Calloway. On stage, that affords the actor playing the Genie the opportunity to also take on the persona of a cabaret performer, essentially hosting the evening’s entertainment for the audience. In bringing Genie to life on stage, Scott is magnificent and leaves us convinced by the end of the evening that there’s really nothing he cannot do, be it dance brilliantly, sing or provide a masterful comedic performance. It’s a testament to Melham’s strength as the title character that he doesn’t find himself upstaged by Scott, who could easily overpower working beside a lesser Aladdin. It’s the type of performance you feel privileged to have had the chance to experience for yourself.
Aladdin is high-octane entertainment delivered by first-class performers in a sumptuous production that succeeds in taking audiences to a whole new world. Superlatives aside, this is one of the best nights out you’ll have this year. Highly recommended.
Aladdin is now playing at the Capitol Theatre in Sydney. For more information, including ticketing information, click here