“Come for the hummus, stay for the floor show!” recommends the Genie as he welcomes us to Agrabah, where “even the poor people look fabulous”, in this latest stage makeover of a Disney animated movie. After all the hype (the production has been packing them in on Broadway for two years), how is the floor show looking, now that it's finally been unveiled in London?
Well, Aladdin does not have any pretensions to supplant The Lion King from pride of place as the most aesthetically daring venture in the Disney theatrical division. There's no equivalent here of the magical puppetry and masks in Julie Taymor's staging. In fact, there's been a cull of the animals that featured in the 1992 cartoon.
Abu, Aladdin's kleptomaniac monkey, has been replaced with a trio of rapscallion chums; the villainous vizier, Jafar, now has a poisonous pint-sized human being as his sidekick, Iago, rather than a parrot. True, there are some breathtaking special effects (the ride on a magic carpet, with no visible means of support, against a star-jewelled sky) but the production, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, has an old-fashioned feel as it attempts to combine Broadway razzle-dazzle, the vibe of a typical Bob Hope/Bing Crosby Road movie and the stream of cheeky, self-referential humour that flows from Chad Beguelin's script.
Robin Williams's hilariously anarchic voice-over as the shape-shifting Genie is the glory of the film. Inimitable, of course, but Trevor Dion Nicholas – in the most sweat-pumping, all-out bid to stop a show that I think I have ever seen – comes close to replicating the effect in theatrical terms. This burly figure in his spangly sultan pants has an eagerness to please that makes Carol Channing look positively stand-offish and a winking way with camp cultural allusion (“My name's Genie; what's yours?”). When he emerges from the lamp in the gold-dripping cave (designed by Bob Crowley), he launches into an extended version of “Friend Like Me” that's a mad whirlwind of showbiz knowingness.
It starts off with Cab Calloway-style scat-singing and erupts into everything from a medley of hits from other Disney musicals (sung in the manner of James Brown) to nods to West Side Story, Hello Dolly! and American game shows. It ends with a gold-encrusted chorus performing one of those shameless, crowd-pleasing tap-finales.
Nicholas huffs and puff his way through this with bonkers bravura. The show's less self-guying efforts to ingratiate don't come off nearly so well. Any individuality that the talented Dean John-Wilson and Jade Ewen bring to Aladdin and the rebellious Princess Jasmine, who refuses to be auctioned off “to any Tom, Dick, or Hassim”, keeps being sabotaged by the characters' steadfastly bland and generic songs. Take, for example, the duet of wishful escape “A Million Miles Away” (“And once the journey's done/We'll have no need to roam/After a million miles or so/We might find that we're home”) that is one of the new numbers that composer Alan Menken has created with Beguelin, the author of the book. These now join a score that includes his collaborations with the lyricist Tim Rice (“A Whole New World”) and those with his regular writing partner, the late Howard Ashman whose “Proud of Your Boy”, Aladdin's pledge to his dead mother, did not make it to the screen but is a much-reprised item here.
Amidst the orgy of bling-flashing and scimitar-waving, it's the moments of mischief, as when one of the sidekicks reveals that he's allergic to dairy and sequins, that charm rather than the attempts at the heartfelt. That's why the claim that in Agrabah “enchantment runs rampant” sounds a bit of an overstatement.
To 11 February 2017; 0844 482 5151
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