Capitol Theatre, Sydney
August 11, 2016
If you want to see a show that dazzles, dances and drips with more Swarovski than the QVB at Christmas, Aladdin’s your man. Coming in at a cool reported $15 million, the latest from the Disney stable is one show where you can see every one of those dollars paraded before your astonished eyes thanks to Bob Crowley’s sumptuous designs and Casey Nicholaw’s inventive hi-octane production. It’s as if the producer’s instruction was “Give me excess of it” and, Genie-like, an obedient creative team replied, “Your wish is my command!”
By all accounts, despite box-office success and residual memories of Robin Williams’ show-stealing turn as the slave of the lamp, the 1992 hit cartoon on which this stage version is closely based had a bumpy road to success. The late, great lyricist Howard Ashman’s original conception was intended as a homage to the Hope Crosby Road Movies with a dose of The Thief of Bagdad and a louche Cab Calloway type as Genie. Late in the day, the producers nearly threw the baby out with the bath water, axing Aladdin’s mates and octogenarian mother (“The mom’s a zero,” was supposedly the line employed), hunking up the main character from 13 to 18 and, wisely in hindsight, shifting the show from Baghdad to the fictional Arabian city of Agrabah. When Ashman died tragically before reaching the finish line, Tim Rice was drafted in to furnish the remaining lyrics.
The stage version goes back to basics in many ways, restoring some of the cut songs and adding a few new ones in what is one of composer Alan menken’s most endearing scores. It counters cartoon magic with lashings of eye-popping, brain-teasing illusion while reaching out to live audiences with a brash pantomime aesthetic and nods to Broadway shows from 42nd Street to The Lion King and beyond. The mates are back, but not the mom, and a number like the Genie’s Friend Like Me is stretched from three minutes in the film to a show-stopping, standing ovation-inducing eight-minute routine that uses every trick in the book to divert you, from tap to tango and then some.
Nicholaw is one of Broadway’s hottest properties right now with a string of hits from Drowsy Chaperone to Book of Mormon. An old hoofer from way back, his choreography is tighter than a harem-eunuch’s codpiece and his richly comedic staging is busier than the Old Bazar in Cairo on a Saturday night during Ramadan. I lost count of the scene changes as Crowley’s immaculately-researched, colourful sets rotated, levitated and flew by before our eyes, carrying us from marketplace to palace and on into a magic carpet ride that leaves you scratching your head as you look in vain for the strings.
And then there’s the Cave of Wonders – a set so laden with gold it might have been mail-ordered by Saddam Hussein. Gregg Barnes’ costumes are similarly astounding, as gloriously extravagant as the most lavish Bollywood movie, gaudy – yes, but pulled together by a visual cohesiveness that has you forgiving any lurking sense of kitsch. Natasha Katz’s busy, zinging lighting design and a first-rate, meaty yet sensitive sound design by Ken Travis make for the icing on the baklava.
Some may find Chad Beguelin’s new script on the corny side. It’s full of one-liners, asides and gags, most of which are used to bludgeon the audience into submission in the current American, vaudeville-inspired style. As the evil Jafar puts it at one point, “We don’t have time for self-discovery,” a maxim that the creators seem to have embraced, and which at times threatens to make us care less than we should for the travails of our hero and the vicissitudes of young lovers. The cast are never less than committed to it all, however, and their sense of verbal do-or-die, coupled with the staging’s refusal to stand still for a nanosecond on the whole carries the day.
In a cast with no weak links, Ainsley Melham’s Aladdin and Arielle Jacobs’ Princess Jasmine are well matched, nowhere more so than in the beautifully-finessed Oscar-winning A Whole New World. He’s a local boy, and sings with a light, engaging tenor and an engaging naivety. Pecs to the fore (a fully-developed upper torso seems to have been de rigueur to get into this show), he pulls off athletic feats of derring do (One Jump Ahead, with its rooftop chase is a peach) without a breathless pant to be heard. She’s a Broadway-import, more feisty of tone, perfectly sculpted in the looks department and delivering a good line in independent young woman – no Tom, Dick or Hassim is being foisted off on her, thank you very much. If that all sounds rather stereotyped, it is. There’s an old-fashioned girls need to be rescued, boys do the rescuing thing going on here, an element you’d have thought a modern creative team might have done more to subvert.
The supporting cast features nice lines in panto-villainy from Adam Murphy as the obsidian-clad Jafar, an OTT cross between Stephen Fry and Ming the Merciless, and Aljin Abella as his fast-talking henchman Iago (an upgrade from the cartoon’s talking parrot), trundling two paces behind his master and hamming it up to the hilt. Aladdin’s hapless pals, Kassim – the loyal one (Adam-Jon Fiorentino), Omar – the borderline gay one (Robert Tripolino) and Babkak – the greedy, fat one (Troy Sussman), may have single-note character definitions, but are blessed with appealing physical comedy skills. A pity that Jasmine’s girlfriends, despite the talents of the actors, are an amorphous trio of pretty non-entities. The perfectly-cast George Henare has all the necessary gravitas for the Sultan.
Michael James Scott
But the show, as it did in the film, belongs to the Genie, and in this case we get another Broadway baby, the magnetic Michael James Scott. As camp as a row of Bedouin’s tents, he’s an instantly winning presence and a sublime narrator, vegemite and Tim Tam gags to the fore. Wisecracking, flouncing, jazz-handing it up by turns, his Friend Like Me with its thousands of costume changes and millions of lighting cues, and the oh-so-catchy Prince Ali deservedly bring the house down. Vocally he’s the real deal, his soul-inflected voice as sweet as sherbet, and boy, does he work that audience.
At its heart, Aladdin is a simple tale of love, loyalty, independence and honesty. Although this glitzy, glamorous makeover threatens to swamp that message at times, it’s never less than watchable, and should please the Sydney crowds, playing shamelessly to the Emerald City’s appetite for baubles, bangles and beads. Prepare to be bedazzled.
Aladdin is now playing at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre