Left – the cast. Cover – Michael James Scott. Photos – Deen van Meer
It was the late eighties and the beginning of the so-called Disney Renaissance. With the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989, Disney had a solid box office success on its hands, and the start of a revival for the once revered animation studio. More animated features quickly followed – Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Aladdin (1992) both earned the studio more than $200 million in their first twelve months, topping Box Office figures for their respective years.
It was during production of Beauty and the Beast, that the idea of a live version was floated, and in 1994 it became the first of Disney’s new animated properties to be adapted for the stage. An Australian production opened one year later, featuring a little-known WAAPA graduate by the name of Hugh Jackman in the role of Gaston. The musical was an instant hit with audiences, with the Broadway production running for more than ten years and 5,000 performances.
However, it was Julie Taymor’s lavish live version of The Lion King (1997) that really demonstrated to Disney the enormous money making potential of adapting its work for the stage. To date, the film version of The Lion King has collected around $1 billion dollars at the Box office – no small change, even for an organisation the size of Disney – but it pales into insignificance against the stage version, which has earned the company more than six times that amount, making it the highest grossing work in any medium of all time.
Aladdin is the latest Disney asset to be adapted for the stage, opening on Broadway in 2014. The Australian production opened in Sydney last year, and has now made its way to Melbourne.
Loosely based on The Book of One Thousand and One Nights ("The Arabian Nights"), Aladdin follows the basic plot of the original movie with a few notable exceptions – in this stage version Aladdin loses his monkey sidekick, Abu, but scores three new chums, Kassim, Babkak and Omar – similarly Princess Jasmine loses her tiger but gains three (human) handmaidens to offer their advice. Iago, sidekick to the evil Ja’far, is played by a parrot in the film but here is replaced by a human (the hilarious and weirdly creepy Aljin Abella).
WAAPA graduate Ainsley Melham as Aladdin is a cheeky, charismatic leading man-boy, and impresses with strong vocals. He is ably supported by Adam-Jon Fiorentino (Kassim), Troy Sussman (Babkak) and Robert Tripolino (Omar) who provide much of the action and really come into their own in the second half. Hiba Elchikhe as Princess Jasmine, has one of the least interesting characters in the play – indeed the production displays a rather disappointing range of roles for women – but she is nevertheless suitably regal, albeit within a narrow emotional range.
While the superb set (Bob Crowley) and costume (Gregg Barnes) design heavily references the tale’s Arabian themes, the music (Alan Menken) makes only passing reference to its middle-eastern origins, instead taking inspiration (and boundless energy) from swing-era jazz. The Genie, famously voiced by Robin Williams in the movie, is portrayed as a sort of Cab Calloway figure, scatting, improvising and generally camping it up. In this Australian production, Michael James Scott steals the show as the Genie, capturing the manic spirit of the role – indeed on Opening Night he received a spontaneous standing ovation for his hyper energetic version of ‘Friend Like Me.’
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Disney production without a touch of magic, and the stage version recreates the famous duet between Aladdin and Jasmine, flying over Agrabah on a magic carpet while singing ‘A Whole New World.’ A number of new songs have been written for the musical, and some songs that were cut from the film have been reinstated. One song left out of the original, but restored for the stage version is ‘Proud of Your Boy,’ sung by Aladdin and apparently directed at his mother (a character we never meet and about whom we know nothing), hinting at a backstory that is never quite explained. While the song itself is ok (if a little mawkish), it feels a little out of place in a musical that otherwise doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Aside from that, Aladdin is a well-made, actually quite traditional musical theatre production that rollicks along at a cracking pace. Where The Lion King was an entirely original theatrical reimagining of the film, this stage version of Aladdin wholeheartedly embraces its cartoonish origins, and frequently resembles an extravagant panto. Full of cheeky, irreverent humour, it even pokes fun at its own theatricality. With energy to burn, and a toe-tapping shimmy-in-your-seat musical score, this show is sure to keep the whole family entertained.
Disney Theatrical Productions presents
music by Alan Menken | lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin | book by Chad Beguelin
Director Casey Nicholaw
Venue: Her Majesty's Theatre Theatre | 13 Campbell Street, Haymarket, Sydney NSW
Dates: 26 April – 22 Oct 2017