Wednesday, 6 July 2016

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.

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