REVIEW: Aladdin (Prince Edward Theatre)

As Mummy mentioned in her recent review of the Aladdin live action film, Aladdin is one of her childhood favourite films. Why then has it taken her this long to get around to seeing it on stage? Well, as Mummy also said in that review, everyone knows you shouldn’t mess with the classics. Pedants will point out that Mummy highlighted how she is not a massive fan of films and would pick a stage show any day. That being said, she has not always enjoyed screen to stage adaptations. Magical opening puppetry scene aside, The Lion King was a bit too pantomime in places. With Aladdin also being a staple of the pantomime circuit, Mummy was more than a tad concerned that it may go the same way. But with the announcement that the flying carpet would soon be heading out of the Prince Edward, Mummy decided it was time to enter this whole new world of Aladdin.

Pushing herself further out of her comfort zone, Mummy booked a box. This had very little to do with the munchkins’ regular requests to sit in a box and rather more to do with the astronomical prices of seats in the stalls. Ever the seat snob, Mummy couldn’t bring herself to go for the gods, so semi-private seating at a weird angle to the stage would have to do. There was a bit of leaning involved but with no danger of obstructing anyone else’s view, Mummy didn’t have to lecture the munchkins about theatre etiquette. Mummy is also pleased to report that her usual etiquette lessons appear to be working, with Quaver appearing outraged by the sound of sweets rustling somewhere in the dress circle. Although with hindsight, she may just have been annoyed that she didn’t have her own sweets….

Anyway, Aladdin: Mummy also learned early on that the munchkins’ theatrical education has so far neglected the concept of the overture. Both munchkins were utterly perplexed when the orchestra started playing without any accompanying on-stage action. Mummy was obviously too busy shushing them to explain, but soon the curtain came up and we were transported to Agrabah.

Trevor Dion Nicholas sets the scene with a soulful rendition of ‘Arabian Nights‘, masterfully conveying the mystery and magic of Agrabah in the way that Will Smith fails to do in the recent film. Then we’re straight into the action of the Agrabah marketplace, where we meet Matthew Croke as the lovable rogue Aladdin. The munchkins were disappointed that Aladdin was sadly sans monkey friend Abu, who has been replaced in this version by a trio of human companions (Babkak, Kassim and Omar). They provide some nice comic touches (particularly snack-obsessed Kassim) as well as some catchy new songs and impressive choreography. They are just about on the right side of panto, almost certainly more so than any attempt that might have been made at a puppet Abu. Likewise, Jafar’s parrot sidekick Iago becomes a human henchman, although this villainous double-act steer even closer to the panto’s edge.

After a musical introduction to Aladdin and friends, Jasmine (Courtney Reed) also enters the marketplace and is rescued by Aladdin following a scrape with a trader which nearly costs her her hand. Given the lack of Abu, Mummy thought it was a particularly nice touch to retain the line about a talking monkey here. And this is something that Chad Behuelin’s book does well. The dialogue often borrows directly from the original film, making it feel very familiar. This sense of nostalgia is added to by some neat nods to popular culture, including the genie bursting into the theme tune of ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel Air‘ and the incorporation of a Disney medley into ‘Friend Like Me‘. This is a real standout moment, and the place where the show really comes alive. The Cave of Wonders truly lives up to its name, while Nicholas’ charismatic and and energetic genie holds the audience captive. And if that’s not enough, this show-stopping number ends with a dazzling tap dance routine to rival 42nd Street.

The other big moment is, of course, the magic carpet. Unlike the film, the carpet doesn’t make an appearance in the Cave of Wonders, so we have to wait until the second act to see it take off. But it is worth the wait. The iconic scene is visually spectacular, with the seemingly wire-free carpet floating around the stage accompanied by the musical’s best known song, ‘A Whole New World‘. Mummy’s one gripe is that she was trying so hard to see the wires, that she probably didn’t take in the whole thing.

The whole show is a nostalgic carpet ride through a Disney classic, with the well known soundtrack supplemented by additional songs both new and old. One excellent addition is the bittersweet ‘Proud of Your Boy‘, an Alan Menken and Howard Ashman collaboration which Mummy was shocked to learn had actually been omitted from the original film. And somehow found itself cut from the recent live action version too.

The jazz-era style of Menken’s music is reflected in the glitzy costumes and big dance numbers reminiscent of the golden age of Hollywood musicals. But this is where Mummy finds herself having a problem with the material. Women are represented predominantly as showgirls and bellydancers, and there are some quite outdated references in the script. Even Jasmine, one of the more strong-willed Disney princesses, ultimately only exists as a love interest for Aladdin, with the stage show failing to take the opportunity (as the new film does) to update her character with a stronger feminist voice. To Mummy’s mind, this is a disappointing flaw of what is otherwise a surprisingly strong adaptation of a much-loved childhood film.

Overall though, we had a brilliant afternoon and would thoroughly recommend Aladdin. The munchkins absolutely loved it, especially the tap dancing, and both confirmed that they enjoyed it more than the film (not the animated version – Mummy doesn’t dare ask that question!) If you haven’t seen it already make sure you rub the magic lamp and wish for tickets before Agrabah stops trading for good on 24th August.

Rating: Raindrops, Whiskers, Kettles and Mittens (aka 4 out of 5 of my favourite things).