Thursday, 21 July 2016

Aladdin: The New Stage Musical Celebrates 5 Magical Years

Five years ago tonight Aladdin: The New Stage Musical officially opened at The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle.  With the show now premiering around the world in Disney Theatrical's fastest ever roll out, it's hard to believe that it began life as a small Pilot Production that was never meant for Broadway.  Indeed, Aladdin only came about in response to the growing demand for a licensable 2-Act version of the show with the intention that the Seattle production would provide a blueprint that could then be licensed to regional and amateur groups.  But when the show premiered at The 5th with a sold out run and overwhelming support from audiences and fans, it soon became clear that a much bigger future was in store.

In celebration of the show's 5th anniversary let's take a look back at how it all began!

Our first look at the show came before we even knew who would be starring in it when Broadway World premiered a gallery of Gregg Barnes' amazing costume designs for the show.  The gallery was quickly removed from Broadway World and, at the request of 5th Avenue, from this blog.  Now everyone's seen the fantastic work Greg Barnes did for the Broadway show I think it's safe for these to come out of the Disney Vault!  So here's a selection of costume designs from the show!

Aladdin (5th Avenue), Costume design by Gregg Barnes

Princess Jasmine (5th Avenue), Costume design by Gregg Barnes

Genie (5th Avenue), Costume design by Gregg Barnes
Jafar (5th Avenue), Costume design by Gregg Barnes

Iago (5th Avenue), Costume design by Gregg Barnes

They look pretty amazing!  I love looking at these and seeing how the designs evolved from concept to Seattle to Broadway.

Adam Jacobs as Aladdin from Concept to Broadway
Costume Design by Gregg Barnes, Photos by Mark Kitaoka & Cylla Von Tiedemann

I think Tia Altinay puts it best as she shares her thoughts on Aladdin's journey from Seattle to Broadway;

"It's been the most amazing experience to see the transformation of this show over the last 5yrs. Everything from costumes to characters have changed and I've been fortunate to see it all. Agrabah continues to be the best place to work on Broadway." -- Tia Altinay

Whilst the full cast announcement would come in June, there was an extra special announcement made in May.  Jonathan Freeman, who gave Jafar life in the classic animated film, would be bringing him to life on stage!  Needless to say, I (and every other Aladdin fan) was over joyed at this brilliant casting.

Jonathan Freeman and Don Darryl Rivera as Jafar and Iago, Back Stage at 5th Avenue

And what a fantastic cast they assembled for this production!  Adam Jacobs as Aladdin, Courtney Reed as Jasmine, James Monroe Iglehart as Genie, Don Darryl Rivera as Iago, Brian Gonzales, Andrew Keenan-Bolger and Brandon O'Neill as Babkak, Omar and Kassim, and Sean Griffin as the Sultan.  Plus the incredible ensemble!

We're so lucky that many of them not only returned when the show took the next step to Broadway but remain with the show to this day!  It's been an incredible 5 year journey for them as well as the show and, thanks to Disney Theatrical, some of them (like Tia above) have very kindly shared their thoughts on the Seattle production on this amazing story so far.

Here's a fantastic memory from James Monroe Iglehart on his first audition for the Seattle production of Aladdin;

"There have been so many magical moments on this journey called Aladdin. From the first table read in Seattle and hearing Jonathan Freeman speak as Jafar for the 1st time, to our family commune in Toronto in the cold, to 2 years on Broadway and winning a Tony! But the story that always comes to mind is that first audition. I was in the 3rd round of guys coming in for Genie and I knew of Casey Nicholaw but not what he looked like. So I was nervous for the audition but not super nervous because I figured I would do a bunch of wild crazy stuff just to get the call back and calm down a little when I met the real director. Well I audition for the casting director and the bald happy faced guy I never met before and just go nuts and they both seem to love me! Then I go back to my job at Memphis and begin to tell the guys on my floor about the audition and Michael McGrath says wow you did all that in front of Casey he must have loved that. I was like that was Casey? I had no idea! A little later Casey tells me how fearless and funny I was and that's what he loved about me, I didn't have the heart to tell him "I didn't know it was you!" When I finally told him we just laughed about it!

I have loved the Genie my whole life and I am blessed to play him every night and that first night at the 5th Ave was the beginning of a journey in my life I will never ever forget! I love my cast, we are truly a Family!" -- James Monroe Iglehart
James Monroe Iglehart as Genie, Photo by Chris Bennion

For a production that ran just three short weeks, the original cast of Aladdin was embraced by the fan base.  On Aladdin Central's forum (the main Aladdin fan site) the film's fans fell in love with a cast most of us would never see (at least in Seattle) and the thread for the 5th Avenue production remains the longest the boards have ever seen as we tracked down every official video, image and interview we could.  For me this is one of my fondest memories of the Seattle show, that sense of community between the fans and how we all came together to celebrate Aladdin's stage premiere.

I think part of the reason the original Seattle cast were so embraced by the Aladdin fan base is because The 5th Avenue shared so much.  Starting with their Spotlight Night and that inspired Jafar phone call that they used to announce a change of venue;

In the build up to the show's first preview The 5th Avenue released several performances and interviews from the Spotlight Night before releasing the entire event on the night Aladdin made its stage debut.  You can watch the special performance in full by following the link above, but here's two special performances from the event.

First up is Brian Gonzales, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Adam Jacobs and Brandon O'Neill singing an early version of "Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim" by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman

And next is Jonathan Freeman and Don Darryl Rivera performing Alan Menken and Tim Rice's "Why Me?" which was ultimately cut before the show reached Broadway.

And speaking of Don Darryl Rivera, everyone's favourite evil sidekick has very kindly shared his thoughts on his time with Aladdin;

"The last 5 years have been some of the best of my life. I have to thank Disney for granting me this amazing wish of originating a role from the inception of the project to making my Broadway debut in that same role. Even as we approach 1000 performances, (OMG!!!) I still have a blast onstage EVERY NIGHT with this incredible cast. Special thanks to Jonathan Freeman for the 5 year master class in Disney Villainy with an emphasis in Sidekickery." -- Don Darryl Rivera

And the Spotlight Night was just the start.  Over the course of July The 5th Avenue's YouTube channel played host to The JMI Show!  I think this is where the fans who couldn't make it to Seattle truly fell in love with this original cast.  They all came across as perfect for their roles and having the time of their lives in the process.  If you've never seen these then you're in for a real treat!  So sit back and enjoy The JMI Show!

Of course, James wasn't the only one who got to interview the cast back then! He just did it better, in person and with higher production qualities ;-)  Joking aside, even 5 years later I cannot say thank you enough to both the cast and The 5th Avenue (especially Bridget Summers) for the incredible opportunity they gave me.  I was just a fan with a small blog and thanks to their kindness I was able to interview most of the principal cast from half way around the world.  It remains, to this day, one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I will be forever grateful for that.

So here they are, my full interviews with the cast of 5th Avenue's Aladdin along with some special reflections they shared on the show's 1st anniversary.

Adam Jacobs
James Monroe Igleahrt
Don Darryl Rivera
Andrew Keenan-Bolger
Courtney Reed
Sean G. Griffin
Brandon O'Neill
Reflections on Aladdin - The 1st Anniversary

For a show with such a short run and no planned future on Broadway The 5th Avenue really went above and beyond in promoting the show.

Courtney Reed appeared on New Day Northwest with Tia Altinay, Shanna Marie Palmer and Allysa Shorte to perform "Call Me and Princess" (another song that was ultimately cut before the show reached Broadway);

Writer and lyricist Chad Begulin spoke with Broadway World.

They took us behind the scenes;

Alan Menken visited the Seattle Children's Hospital

And shared the moment two of Disney's greatest directors paid the cast a visit after watching them bring their story to life on stage;

Ron Clements and John Musker with the cast of Aladdin, Photo from 5th Avenue's Blog

And that's just scratching the surface!  They shared an incredible amount of character and production photos, a selection of which you can see below.

Adam Jacobs as Aladdin, Photo by Chris Bennion
Adam Jacobs & James Monroe Iglehart as Aladdin & Genie, Photo by Chris Bennion
Adam Jacobs & Courtney Reed as Aladdin & Jasmine, Photo by Chris Bennion
Brian Gonzales, Andrew Keenan-Bolger & Brandon O'Neill as Babkak, Omar & Kassim, Photo by Chris Bennion
Adam Jacobs as Aladdin (the first photo!!),  Photo by Mark Kitaoka
Courtney Reed & Sean G. Griffin as Jasmine & Sultan, Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Seeing images like these was a dream come true for myself and so many other fans.  And for some of the cast that dream continues every night when they step onto that Broadway stage;

"It is very hard to put into words how Aladdin has changed my life. If I sit and think about it, it has enhanced my life in every aspect. I always said that it would feel real when I stepped on the stage opening night, but it still doesn't feel real, and that was 2 years ago. It feels like I am in a constant dream state and don't ever want to wake up." -- Courtney Reed

And then, of course, there was the clip of "A Million Miles Away" they shared (strangely the YouTube video posted by The 5th is currently blocked due to a claimed copyright by Disney, if this gets resolved I'll update this post).  Watching this I feel in love with the show all over again and knew it was in good hands with Chad Begulin.

It felt like a dream to see the film I have loved since childhood brought to life before my eyes, even for those brief few moments.  Happily the trailer for the show has been preserved and you can now see some of that early magic for yourself.

From these humble beginnings a Broadway sensation was born.  Aladdin in Seattle was, like its title character, a diamond in the rough.  Whilst the reviews were mixed to positive, audiences embraced the show night after night.  It was their support that proved to Disney Theatrical that maybe Aladdin could be something more than a licensable property.  And it was the subsequent hard work of the creative team, cast and everyone at Disney Theatrical that transformed the show into to a magical production that is truly shining, shimmering, splendid.  As Thomas Schumacher said on the Diamond Edition Blu-Ray, the reason Aladdin works "is because nobody quit.  Nobody quit on it, and it was the sheer will of an enormous number of committed people that made the show happen".  That's a kind of magic as well.

Yes, a lot changed on Aladdin's road to Broadway as it moved the production closer to the animated movie.  Here's Sean Griffin, the original Sultan, reflecting on seeing the show's opening night on Broadway and his time with the production in Seattle;

"I was at the opening of Aladdin in NY and loved it.  There were some changes that I liked and some I did not.  The Sultan, now played by an African American actor which is good because the show needed some actors of color, was pared down somewhat as were the roles of the three "amigos" as narrators.  They wanted the Genie to appear sooner in the production, I liked the old way better.  But still it was a spectacular show and the audience loved it.  Casey Nicholaw did a terrific job with new direction and choreography.  New costumes and sets were spectacular as well.  My memories of doing it in Seattle are the best.  I had a most enjoyable time and the entire cast and crew and creatives were wonderful.  A great experience and am lucky to have had it." -- Sean G. Griffin

Since taking part in Aladdin, Sean has starred Sugar Daddies, Outside Mullingar, Carousel and, most recently, The Secret Garden which will see him return to The 5th Avenue Theatre in April 2017.

I can't think of any better way to end this look back at The 5th Avenue's magical show than with the words of Aladdin himself;

"Has it really been five years since Seattle??  It's amazing to think of how far we've come and yet it still seems like yesterday when we were at the 5th Avenue Theatre, enjoying summer there and putting together the first production.  What a fantastic, magical and hectic time that was.  So much excitement surrounding every rehearsal and the feeling of accomplishment when you finally got the steps down, or made the quick change, etc.  I feel so lucky to have witnessed not only the show's growth and success over the years, but the growth and success of my fellow actors who were with me from the beginning.  We really worked hard, pouring our blood, sweat and tears into this project and there's nothing better than having it be a smash hit on Broadway.   To say it's a life-changing experience is an understatement.  Every aspect of my life has changed in some way, the greatest being that I'm a father now, and I can't help but equate the love I have for my twin boys with the love I have for Aladdin and all its meant to me.  And whenever my journey with Aladdin ends I will be happy knowing that I enjoyed and appreciated every moment along the way.  But until then I'm just gonna keep flying high!" -- Adam Jacobs

Happy Anniversary Aladdin!  Here's wishing you many more!

Adam Jacobs & Courtney Reed as Aladdin & Jasmine, Photo by Chris Bennion

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

It Began on a Dark Night...

Adam Jacobs as Aladdin, Photo by Mark Kitaoka

Talk about Throwback Thursday!  Five years ago tonight Aladdin: The New Stage Musical had it's very first preview performance at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre!

Back then Broadway really was a million miles away and an international roll out like the show's having now was likely beyond everyone's wildest dreams.

I'll have a full look back at the 5th's Pilot Production on the anniversary of the show's official opening (21st July) but for now I just want to say how happy I am that the show has come so far.  Five years ago I never would have dreamed that Aladdin would be in it's third record breaking year on Broadway (featuring many of Seattle's principal cast members!) or that I would be able to see show in my own country!  Talk about wishes being granted!

Review - Aladdin Brings Magic to London's West End

The cast of Aladdin, Photo by Johan Perrson

Three weeks ago I had the privilege of attending the official opening of Disney's Aladdin in London.  To be in that audience of friends, family and fans (and yes a few critics too) was a true once in a life time experience and one I will never forget.

The first time I reviewed Aladdin was for the Tuachan's wonderful regional production back in 2012.  Two years (and many changes) later my wish was granted and the show opened on Broadway featuring most of the principle cast from 2011's original production.  Whilst I loved them both, the difference between those two productions was such that it was like reviewing two different shows.  This time that's not the case.  Yes, there have been changes made for the West End, but it is clearly the same show as the fantastic production that's currently in its 3rd record breaking year on Broadway.  So I've been finding it hard to write this review because, essentially, I've already reviewed the show and in my head I've been desperately trying to find a new angle, something new to say about a show that I've already written so much about.  But you know what?  It doesn't matter.  I'm going to repeat myself because Alan Menken's music is as beautiful as ever and saying Casey Nicholaw is a genius was true then and it's still true now!

So let's start with the similarities.  Aladdin in London features the same creative dream team as the Broadway production.  Gregg Barnes' costume design is simply stunning.  How he wasn't nominated for a Tony Award back in 2014 is beyond me.  It's worth sitting in the front rows of the stalls just to see these beautiful costumes up close, they are truly dazzling and each one is a unique, hand made, work of art.

The Cast of Aladdin, Photo by Deen Van Meer

Bob Crowley's sets and Natasha Katz's lighting come together seamlessly to recreate the vibrant, colourful world of the animated film on stage.  The way the lighting affects the mood and colours within the Cave of Wonders is marvellous to behold.  Aladdin is a visual feast from beginning to end and the magic carpet ride in "A Whole New World" is worth the price of admission all on its own.  Don't ask how the carpet flies, just smile because it does and it's pure Disney magic at its best.

What can I say that I haven't already said about Alan Menken?  He, along with his many talented lyricists, wrote the music of my childhood.  For Aladdin he worked with three of the best.  Howard Ashman, whose original songs find new life here, Sir Tim Rice and Chad Beguelin.  The music in Aladdin is simply joyous and will be stuck in your head long after leaving the theatre.  As I said when I reviewed the Broadway production, Chad Beguelin (who wrote the show's book as well as the new songs) has my deepest respect and thanks for the seamlessness that the show has in both its story and music.

Bringing everything together is Director and Choreographer Casey Nicholaw.  As I said earlier, Casey is a genius.  I'm just going to quote what I wrote back in 2014 because it's just as true now as it was then;

"Magic carpets aside the spectacle of Aladdin is almost entirely human, this is a modern version of the traditional song and dance musical comedy and Casey Nicholaw's choreography is at its heart.  "Friend Like Me" and "Prince Ali" show that he knows how to build spectacle, but quieter moments like "Proud of Your Boy" (particularly its second act reprise) and "A Million Miles Away" show he also knows when to pull back and let the characters carry the scene, and with "A Whole New World" he manages to pull of both spectacular and intimate at the same time."

Like I said, genius.

Though the production is the same there are still some surprises in store for those who have seen the Broadway production as the show has been suitable tweaked for a British audience.  I'll be honest and admit that I often tended to prefer the original lines (whether that's through familiarity or because my sensibilities tend to skew more American I'm not sure) but I loved Genie's "No, I'm from New York!", the way his pre-show shopping poked fun at Britain's typically wet weather and every time I've seen the show the audience has loved the Bruce Forsyth reference!

Trevor Dion Nicholas as Genie, Photo by Deen Van Meer

And speaking of Genie, I said it after seeing the show's first preview and I'm saying it again now, Trevor Dion Nicholas is a star!  When Aladdin was being brought to stage one of the biggest questions was how do you follow Robin Williams as Genie?  James Monroe Iglehart was Broadway's answer.  In London the question was very likely how do you follow JMI?  Trevor is the answer!  From the moment he steps out on stage his energy and joy fill the theatre as he effortlessly makes Genie his own.  Trevor holds the audience in the palm of his hand, more often than not as he has them in stitches but also in some of the show's more tender moments as a man yearning for his freedom.  Just give the man his Olivier Award!  I've seen the show 10 times and I can safely say that I have never seen a  "Friend Like Me" like the performance I saw on opening night.  The level of energy that Trevor and the rest of the cast gave off (and that the audience gave back) was simply out of this world.  It was phenomenal and brought the crowd straight to their feet in a well deserved standing ovation.

Of course you can't talk about Trevor and "Friend Like Me" without talking about Aladdin's spectacular ensemble.  I simply can't say enough about the ensemble.  They make the show, it's that simple.  This show has massive production numbers, from the opening "Arabian Nights" to the show stopping tour de force of "Friend Like Me", from the infectious joy of "Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim" to the quick change visual feast of "Prince Ali" they give everything they have and then some to make this show as magical as it can be.  Writing my initial thoughts after the first preview I praised the ensemble but then asked them to give even more.  On opening night they didn't just raise the bar, they exceeded all of my (impossibly high) expectations.  And it wasn't just opening night energy, they did the same again the next night too.  This cast give off so much energy and joy you just can't help but want to get up and dance and sing with them.  That joy, to me, is what makes this show so special.

But for all the show stopping spectacle, it's Dean John-Wilson's Aladdin that is the heart of the show.  It really heartens me to say this as when I saw the first preview I thought Dean was great but it was Trevor's show.  Now, Trevor is still the star attraction and steals every scene he's in, but it's Dean's show and his relationships with Trevor's Genie and Jade Ewen's Jasmine that drive the production.  Out of everyone he has improved the most from 1st preview to opening night and he's become a true leading man.

Jade Ewen looks every inch the Disney Princess and she's clearly loving bringing the spirited and forward thinking Jasmine to life.  Like Dean, she's grown into the role and the two share a great chemistry as the romantic leads of the show.

Dean John-Wilson and Jade Ewen as Aladdin and Jasmine, Photo by Deen Van Meer

But what are heroes without villains?  Don Gallagher brings Jafar to life with a skilled balance, at once villainously over the top (which the character demands) but without descending into pantomime.  He succeeds in making the character his own, which is no easy feat when you consider who plays the role on Broadway.  Together he and Peter Howe plot, scheme and evil laugh their way through the show to the delight of the audience.  Peter's Iago is hard for me to review.  When I think of Iago I think of Don Darryl Rivera.  That's not a fault of Peter's performance, it's a compliment to how well (to me) Don Darryl embodies the role.  When I saw the first preview I felt that Peter was trying to imitate how Don Darryl plays the role and it didn't quite connect for me.  Seeing the show again on opening night Peter was playing Iago slightly differently, making it more his own, and gave a much better performance.  I would love to see him take it even further in this direction and truly make it his own.  He and Don work well together and make a great evil duo.

As the Sultan, Irvine Iqbal brings a touch of royal class to the proceedings.  He displays the majesty you would expect of a Sultan and at the same time delivers his comic lines with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.  Completing the principal cast are a trio of new characters, Babkak, Omar and Kassim.  Brought to hilarious life by Nathan Amzi, Rachid Sabitri and Stephen Rahman-Hughes respectively these three friends of Aladdin's are some of my favourite characters in the show and their fantastic rendition of "High Adventure" is one of the highlights of the second act.  And I have to say, Omar might not like weapons but Rachid wields that scimitar like a pro (which it turns out he is)!  Ultimately I can think of no higher compliment than to say whilst I was watching them I found myself wishing their characters hadn't been cut from the film as I'd have loved these characters to have been part of the nineties animated series so I could go on more adventures with them.

In conclusion, to steal a line from the show, London's Aladdin is the show that I knew with a small twist or two but the changes they made were slight.  Aladdin is my favourite show and the London cast and creative team have delivered a brilliant production that delights from beginning to end.  It's been 17 years since Disney transferred a musical from Broadway to the West End and it's been worth the wait.  No diamond in the rough, this Aladdin is shining, shimmering, splendid, a musical and visual delight that I look forward to revisiting again and again.

Aladdin: The New West End Musical officially opened in London on 15th June 2016 at The Prince Edward Theatre.  Produced by Disney Theatrical Productions under the direction of Thomas Schumacher, based on the Disney film written by Ron Clements, John Musker, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio and directed by John Musker and Ron Clements.

Starring Dean John-Wilson, Trevor Dion Nicholas, Jade Ewen, Nathan Amzi, Stephen Rahman-Hughes, Rachid Sabitri, Don Gallagher, Peter Howe and Irvine Iqbal

Standbys Leon Craig, Fred Johanson and Oliver Lidert

The ensemble features Daniel De Bourg, Albey Brookes, Bianca Cordice, Ivan De Freitas, Melanie Elizabeth, Kade Ferraiolo, Seng Henk Goh, Anthony Hewitt, Michelle Chantelle Hopewell, Mitch Leow, Ethan Le Phong, Thierry Picaut, Alex Pinder, Briony Scarlett, Kyle Seeley, Sadie-Jean Shirley, Dawnita Smith, Marsha Songcome and Jermaine Woods

Swings Arran Anzani-Jones, Miles Barrow, Lauren Chia, Katie Singh, Ricardo Spriggs and Kayleigh Thadani

Music by Alan Menken, Lyrics by Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, Book and Additional Lyrics by Chad Beguelin, Technical Supervision by Geoffrey Quart/Hudson Theatrical Associates, Production Supervisor Clifford Schwartz, Associate Director Scott Taylor, Associate Choreographer John MacInnis, Resident Director Tim English, UK Associate Choreographer Ben Clare, Casting by Jill Green CDG, Dance Music Arrangements by Glen Kelly, Musical Director Alan Williams, Electronic Music Programming Jeff Marder, Orchestral Manager Andy Barnwell, Original Fight Direction by J. Allen Suddeth, Sound Design by Ken Travis, Hair Design by Josh Marquette, Makeup Design by Milagros Medina-Cerdeira, Illusion Design by Jim Steinmeyer, Special Effects Design by Jeremy Chernick, Costume Design by Gregg Barnes, Lighting Design by Natasha Katz, Scenic Design by Bob Crowley, Orchestrations by Danny Troob, Music Supervision, Incidental Music and Vocal Arrangements by Michael Kosarin, Directed and Choreographed by Casey Nicholaw

The premiere of Aladdin was produced by The 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle, WA.  David Armstrong, Executive Producer & Artistic Director; Bernadine C. Griffin, Managing Director; Bill Berry; Producing Director.

Tickets are available from Disney Tickets.