Disney's cartoon-to-stage Broadway hit about a boy, an uncorked spirit and an aerodynamic rug comes to Melbourne
Remember when Krispy Kreme donuts arrived on our shores? Australians were told in breathless tones that these were the “best in the world”, but when we bit into them we discovered they were strangely insubstantial and sickly sweet. Disney’s Aladdin has all the glaze and ornament of those airy donuts, and about as much nutritional value.
Not that the original source was a feast for mind and soul. Aladdin was a largely forgettable 1992 Disney confection made palatable by the extraordinary improv skills of the late, great Robin Williams. It conformed precisely to a formula that is now virtually ubiquitous in animation: a plunder of traditional stories with little to no appreciation of their cultural significance; wisecracking animals who help disguise large chunks of exposition; and as many current pop culture references as possible, just so people know it’s all happening now.
Much has been made of Princess Jasmine’s (Hiba Elchikhe) fierce sense of independence and the fact she isn’t white, but both of these traits come to very little in the transition to the stage. Aladdin (Ainsley Melham) is the focus, and their coupling – while not without its endearing naivety – doesn’t seem transgressive or evolutionary. The journey of self-discovery is all his, and it’s a classic Disney one: be yourself. She gets to marry her prince, but only because her father, the Sultan (George Henare) changes the law to allow it. It’s not exactly smashing the patriarchy.
The characters who make the easiest transition to stage are the villains, Jafar (Adam Murphy) and his sidekick Iago (Aljin Abella). A Rasputin in the Sultan’s court, Jafar is less extravagantly camp than his movie counterpart, and Murphy nails his insouciant self-assurance. Abella, mercifully not a talking parrot in this iteration, is superb as the servant who is more dastardly than his master. His physical discipline is remarkable, and he’s consistently hilarious.
Then there is the genie. Michael James Scott has – much like Callum Francis in Kinky Boots – understudied the role overseas, and comes to Australia to take hold of the part once and for all. He’s very good; snappy, warm and charming, he has a unique ability to shine without upstaging his fellow performers. It’s a significant point of difference from Williams’ animated version because it serves to underline the deep selflessness and compassion of the character, and adds emotional depth to his desire for freedom. He’s more camp than Jafar; in fact, he’s pretty obviously gay. It isn’t overt (we all know what happened with this year’s film version of Beauty and the Beast), but it is inescapable.
Technically, the production is uneven. Sure, there are some outrageously effective scenes; the cave of wonders, with its gold on gold on gold, lives up to its name, and the magic carpet frankly defies contemplation. It appears in a beautifully lit starry night at first, making you think it must be a simple case of wires well hidden, but then comes back onto a fully lit stage at the end to induce optic incredulity. The costumes (Gregg Barnes), changing before you faster than you can blink, are sublime. But, given this technical wizardry, so many of the transitional sets (Bob Crowley) look cheap and cartoonish, lacking texture and contrast.
The musical also has a similar problem to Kinky Boots: it begins badly. The opening number, ‘Arabian Nights’, is underdeveloped and blandly staged. The genie is clearly there to reassure an audience who won’t see him again for almost an hour that he is, in fact, in the show. If you compare this to the last two blockbuster musicals to reach Melbourne, Matilda and Book of Mormon – two shows that make deep emotional impacts very early on – you’ll see the problem. Taymor’s Lion King was known to regularly bring audiences to tears in its opening number. Aladdin is in danger of sending them to sleep.
Rest assured, it picks up, pulls itself together and eventually delivers the goods. The second act is considerably better than the first, although the emotional payoffs are strangely muted. The genie’s freedom from eternal servitude comes across as a few weeks off in the Bahamas, and Aladdin’s realisation of self worth is undercut by his sudden elevation into royalty. So it’s a big Broadway musical, but does that mean we shouldn’t get catharsis, surprise reversals, genuine resolutions that aren’t a result of simplistic plot mechanics? Apparently.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with slick Broadway fare hitting our shores and distracting the eye every now and then. It used to be considered an honour to receive some well-packaged toe-tapper to show the country how entertainment was really done. But those days have passed. Local casts putting on fake American accents to tell a story set in Persia seems vaguely perverse, as if we were cogs in a global commercial takeover. The result is a particular kind of American veneer, dazzling certainly, but ultimately hollow and ersatz. A bit like a Krispy Kreme donut, really.
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