Disney’s Aladdin

Book by Chad Beguelin, music by Alan Menken, lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, based upon the Disney film
Disney Theatrical Productions
Palace Theatre, Manchester

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Disney’s Aladdin Credit: Deen Van Meer
Disney’s Aladdin Credit: Deen Van Meer
Disney’s Aladdin Credit: Deen Van Meer
Disney’s Aladdin Credit: Deen Van Meer
Disney’s Aladdin Credit: Deen Van Meer
Disney’s Aladdin Credit: Deen Van Meer

There are challenges to adapting Disney’s Aladdin from the screen to the stage. The success of the animated version was heavily dependent upon the inspired impersonations / improvisations of the late Robin Williams who voiced Genie. There is also the issue of identifying the target audience. The stage show makes few concessions to the youngsters, some dressed as Princess Jasmine, in the audience at The Palace—there are no prompts to boo and hiss the villain. It is clear this is intended as a high-class musical, definitely not a pantomime.

This is, as the knowing lyrics state, a plot we all know with a few twists. In Agrabah, Aladdin (Gavin Adams showing stunning talent and confidence in his stage debut) is a diamond in the rough, living by his wits and whatever he can steal but somehow contriving to share rather than retain his ill-gotten gains. The strong-willed Princess Jasmine (Desmonda Cathabel) distains all potential suitors, which satisfies the villainous Jafar (Adam Strong), who hopes if she remains unmarried, he will rule the kingdom.

The restless Jasmine sneaks out of the palace in disguise and encounters and is charmed by Aladdin. Jafar, however, believes the street urchin can recover a mysterious lamp containing an all-powerful Genie (Yeukayi Ushe). Jafar’s plan goes awry, and Aladdin finds himself in command of the Genie, who is obliged to grant him three wishes. But as Aladdin moves deeper into elite society, he finds it hard to retain his true personality which charmed Jasmine.

The musical opens, surprisingly, with Yeukayi Ushe centre-stage belting out a cheeky introductory number setting the scene for the chaos which is to come. It is a clever way of exploiting Ushe’s blazing charisma at an early point in the show, as the Genie does not appear until close to the end of act one.

Although Robin Williams is absent, director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw borrows his sense of irreverence. The opening number points out Agrabah is the sort of town where everybody sings. The villains practise their evil laughs while cautioning each other not to go over the top. There may be no impersonations of celebrities, but the back-catalogue of Disney musicals is cheerfully mocked.

The musical may be set in North Africa, but Nicholaw builds a vaudeville rather than an ethnic vibe. Act one has a long Keystone Cops-style chase with Gavin Adams jumping from one near-catastrophe to another.

The choreography and score are heavily influenced by the atmosphere of Harlem’s Cotton Club. The smooth ‘pop’ score familiar from the cartoon has been given a more authentic scat tone closer to what one images composer Alan Menken heard in his mind. In case the point is missed, act two features Yeukayi Ushe in a Cab Calloway-style zoot suit, granted in turquoise but it helps set the mood.

In terms of spectacle, director Nicholaw keeps his powder dry giving a misleading impression of a comedy slapstick show in act one until the first big production number at the conclusion. "Friend Like Me" blows the roof off the theatre—a roaring song ecstatically performed to a background of initially subtle illusions by Jim Steinmeyer and Rob Lake (a table of treats appears as a tablecloth is whisked away) that just keeps building and building to become an endless, high-kicking chorus line with blasts of gold pouring from the ceiling.

By contrast, the big number in act two—"A Whole New World"—is restrained and charming, with the flying carpet carrying the lovers seeming to swoop and sway in time to the music.

Gavin Adams and Desmonda Cathabel have strong chemistry and make a convincing squabbling pair of lovers, but the show is dominated by Yeukayi Ushe. Ushe is an excellent vocalist, but his main contribution is selling the Genie as someone with a genuine appetite for life, which develops a sense of wonder in the audience.

Rather than a straightforward screen-to-stage adaptation, Disney’s Aladdin is a hardcore musical extravaganza which will dazzle and delight audiences.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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