Ok, so we did emerge talking about the Cave of Wonders, the Genie and the how-did-they-do-that flying carpet. Of course we did. How could we not? At least it made a welcome change from banging on about Brexit.
It was almost enough to convince us we’d been entertained in the two and a half hours of razzle-dazzle spectacle that nearly beat us into submission, choking in a cloud of glitter yet wanting to dig out the harem pants and turbans from the backs of our wardrobes and spend the rest of our lives sewing on sequins.
This is of course Aladdin, Disney’s latest film-to stage-behemoth (music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin) about a “street rat” and bread thief who develops a taste for lamp-rubbing and an American- accented Princess who dresses like a belly dancer. It’s based on the hugely entertaining cartoon of 1992, which is largely remembered for Robin Williams’ hilarious Genie. How strange that the show will be remembered for the genie too.
Yes, it looks expensive. That’s because it is expensive. Gregg Barnes provides 337 costumes from a budget that might dent ‘Sir’ Philip Green’s pocket, though the cave appears to have eaten up two-thirds of the scenery (Bob Crowley) funds leaving the rest of the show looking occasionally wanting.
But what we expected and wanted was more more fun. There are a few good gags (book by Beguelin), and some adapted from the Broadway version for UK audiences (we assume they have no idea who Bruce Forsyth is in America) but you have to go looking for them among the clunkier ones that would disgrace your average panto.
And therein lies the rub. Casey Nicholaw‘s slick production feels like a very highly-appointed panto. There’s some fourth-wall breaking and the panto-ish story, some scenes are played out in front of painted drops as the scenery is changed behind them. Heck, it even opens in a market square with the city folk of Agrabah performing a big glitzy number and closes with the villain Jafar (Don Gallagher) getting booed at the curtain call. Phil was half expecting a song sheet. But there’s none of the real subversion or charm that pantos can bring when they’re on top of their game.
Though there is a massive exception. This comes in the shape of imported-from-Broadway-Olivier-Award-winner-to-be Trevor Dion Nicholas as Genie. Thank heavens he’s here. He’s so good, with such charisma and likeability he exposes the rest of the show for what it is; slightly soulless and a touch corporate. But it’s quite a big wait for him. Apart from a brief appearance at the start of the show it’s not until his “Friend Like Me” number – in the aforesaid cave – that the show achieves any real zip. References to other shows, West Side Story, Hello Dolly! etc and TV game shows combine with flashy effects and a decent helping of tap, all contributing to the number’s delights. But he’s got competition; Nicholas has to perform in Cab Calloway fashion against a setting dripping with gold and more dazzlement than laser eye surgery. We’d say he stopped the show, but as the sluggish first Act had hardly achieved any momentum there was precious little to stop.
They should have broken for the interval immediately after it rather than lumbering on with another lamer number which was accompanied by the noise of (we presume) a group of theatre staff talking loudly in a corridor or room near our seats for a considerable time. Heads in the audience were turning to see where this racket was coming from. Despite this we still talked about the cave scene during the break assuming that this was the turning point of the show. It’s not.
Act 2’s main highlight is trying to work out how they do the flying carpet, a nice distraction from the syrupy Grammy and Academy Award-winning “A Whole New World” that Aladdin (Dean John-Wilson) and Jasmine (Jade Ewen) sing as they swoop above the stage. The floor covering reappears at the finale, where wires are clearly visible. Earlier it appeared to be as stringless as a brass band.
In between these brief moments of wonder there’s an agreeably camp villain from Gallagher, dragged up with eyebrows Joan Crawford would surely envy, though he’s saddled with a most irritating and unfunny sidekick, Iago (Peter Howe). Politics is covered with a storyline that involves slavery and an arranged marriage for Jasmine while the more shallow of us appreciated the numerous fit torsos prancing around in Nicholaw’s sparkily choreographed numbers.
So, it’s a big yes for the cave, the carpet and Genie. But a big glittery thumbs down for the rest. And if this appears harsh, it’s a higher rating than Phil’s theatre companion would have awarded.