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Disney’s Aladdin at the Prince Edward Theatre, London – review round-up

Aladdin. Photo: Deen van Meer
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With a reported 337 costumes and 161 custom-made shoes, Disney’s latest movie-to-musical extravaganza, which opened at the Prince Edward Theatre this week, features the iconic songs of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman from the 1992 animated original film.

Dean John-Wilson, from In The Heights, plays Aladdin and former Sugababe Jade Ewen stars as Princess Jasmine. Trevor Dion Nicholas, who also performed in the 2014 Broadway production, stars as the genie and the creative team includes set design by Bob Crowley, direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw, and a book by Chad Beguelin, who has salted his script with a couple of references for British audiences. Troy Nankervis rounds up the reviews.

Aladdin – He’s behind you

Aladdin Prince Edward Theatre Photographer Deen van Meer © Disney 3Beneath the glitz and glamour, many critics have observed links to the sensibilities of British panto. Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out,★★★) writes producers “have made a panto without realising”, while Dominic Cavendish (The Telegraph,★★★), calls it “an odd sort of family entertainment” that’s really just “panto in disguise”. He says Disney’s Aladdin “does exactly what the British pantomime does”, by taking “an old folk-tale and drapes it in the tinsel of cheery comedy, cutesy romance, colourful designs and lively song and dance routines”.

Matt Wolf (New York Times) says this approach only “recycles familiar, pre-existing templates,” but Michael Billington (The Guardian,★★★★) doesn’t seem to mind that it’s a “Christmas panto minus the dame and with a budget of zillions.” He says the villains of the piece happily transport him “back to Palladium pantos [of] long ago”.

He writes: “Don Gallagher as the scheming vizier, who hatches evil plans with his little finger crooked and never exits without a manic cackle, is camp of the highest order; and Peter Howe as his minute, curly-haired accomplice, Iago, reminded me of a sinister Charlie Drake.”

The results of ensuring “panto is never far away”, according to Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage,★★★★) is “all-embracing”. She says: “There is a lot of mischievous warmth and production numbers that throw everything including streamers and fireworks into the sheer effort of making everything look, sound and feel as big, brash and all-embracing as possible.”

Aladdin — A magic carpet ride

Dean John Wilson as Aladdin and Jade Ewen as Jasmine in Aladdin at the Prince Edward Theatre, London. Photo: Deen van Meer/Disney
Dean John Wilson as Aladdin and Jade Ewen as Jasmine in Aladdin at the Prince Edward Theatre, London. Photo: Deen van Meer/Disney

Most critics agree Bob Crowley’s design, and the magic carpet effects created by illusionist Jim Steinmeyer, is the real star of the show. Paul Taylor (The Independent,★★★) says Aladdin has a strong chance of overtaking The Lion King “as the most aesthetically daring venture in the Disney theatrical division”, while Quentin Letts (Daily Mail,★★★) thinks the “over the top sets” make up for the “two-dimensional” acting.

Michael Billington says an “impressive” and “composite Middle East of rotating minarets and latticed palaces” has been created, while Sarah Crompton says there’s “acid colours so bright you need sunglasses, sequins that dazzle” and “wide vistas that conjure visions of palm trees and palaces.”

Rasha Barazi (The Upcoming,★★★★) says this “elegant” design is further enhanced by Gregg Barnes’ “beautiful costumes”. With “each more impressive, colourful and dazzling than the last”, she says the “result is an opulent, rich and vibrant production”. Tim Bano (Exeunt), whose Inner Child and Inner Critic both submitted reviews, enjoyed the way “everything sparkles like Holi.” His Inner Child was quite taken with all the ribbons and fireworks too.

Aladdin — Dream genie

Trevor Dion Nicholas as Genie in Aladdin. Photo: Deen van Meer
Trevor Dion Nicholas as Genie in Aladdin. Photo: Deen van Meer

In the role made famous by Robin Williams on screen, Trevor Dion Nicholas has big blue shoes to fill as the Genie, but most critics agree he fills them well.

Bringing the role a “whole new lease of life”, Ash Percival (Huffington Post,★★★★) says Nicholas’ standing ovation for Friend Like Me is a “standout” showstopper. Lukowski writes “Trevor Dion Nicholas’s Genie is worth the price of admission alone, while Cavendish says Nicolas “strikes a welcome if jarring note of black, urban, and sunny-side-up authenticity.”

Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard,★★★★) says he is “show-stealingly brilliant”, while Michael Billington feels Nicholas “treats the audience as if we were guests at his private party”, with “non-stop inventiveness”. “Waiters with plates of exotic food scurry about like electrified rabbits, chorines in multicoloured harem pants whirl like spinning tops and pillars transform into skyscrapers leading to a riotously incongruous tap-dance straight out of 42nd Street,” he writes.

Aladdin – Facing the music

Critics are left far more divided on the score, which introduces new songs alongside Alan Menken’s familiar tunes. Despite its “snazzy production numbers” Edward Seckerson (Arts Desk,★★★) says “its slim pickings, musically speaking”, which is ironic given Melissa York (City AM,★★★★) says there’s “far too many” songs.

Ash Percival adds the songs have has come “at the expense of telling the story,” while Paul Taylor says lead performances by Dean John-Wilson as Aladdin, and Jade Ewen as Princess Jasmine, are “sabotaged by the characters’ steadfastly bland and generic songs.”

Michael Billington calls the songs “a mixed bag”. He writes: “The big romantic number A Whole New World is completely upstaged by the carpet. Dean John-Wilson, however, is a likable, rough-hewn Aladdin; and Jade Ewen lends her Jasmine, refusing to be auctioned off to the highest bidder, a touch of fire.”

Mark Shenton (The Stage,★★★★) is more forgiving, calling the “distinctive” book and score “wish-fulfilment”. He writes, “Alan Menken’s irresistibly tuneful score, with lyrics by the late Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, is beautifully rendered under the musical direction of Alan Williams, and director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw takes it all home with a staging that nails every number with brilliant showmanship.”

Aladdin – So is it any good?

For most critics, Aladdin is entertaining but underwhelming. Quentin Letts concludes “it’s Disney, not Chekhov. It’s cynical, saleable, palpable pap and I suspect it will make a fortune.”

Edward Seckerson says “beneath the cosmetics, there’s precious little else to savour”, while Dominic Cavendish advises readers to “save your shekels. You don’t need to be a patriotic nut to miss old Widow Twankey, Wishy-Washy and the time-honoured British slant on this tale,” while Andrzej Lukowski says “it’ll keep you ticking over until Christmas, but that’s it”.

Henry Hitchings calls it “a show with a well-judged air of mischief and spectacle” and Mark Shenton says “there’s no denying that Disney knows how to deliver quality family entertainment”. He says “while British musicals like Billy Elliot or Matilda may have a more effortless, breezy and heartfelt sophistication, the resources thrown at the stage here and the sheer sense of spectacle, is awe-inspiring”.

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