Musical review: Aladdin (Singapore 2019)

For inSing

ALADDIN

21 July – 1 September
Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Photo credit: James Green

Disney’s recent live-action remakes of their beloved animated films have drawn many detractors. If you’ve been dissatisfied with those, look no further than Disney Theatrical’s stage versions, which are often lively, worthwhile adaptations of the animated movies – this certainly is the case with Aladdin.

Based on the 1992 animated film, the tale of a ‘street rat’ who falls in love with a princess and meets an all-powerful genie is ideal material for a stage musical – not least because the film features such memorable songs as “A Whole New World”, “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali”.

Photo credit: James Green

The musical features the songs written for the film by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, including songs that were eventually cut from the film like “Proud of Your Boy”. New songss are written by Menken with lyrics by Chad Beguelin, who also penned the book.

Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, Aladdin is a relentlessly dazzling spectacle that sweeps audiences up in concentrated Disney magic from the opening strains of “Arabian Nights”. Scene transitions in which set pieces swoop on and off stage are breath-taking just by themselves, let alone the actual set pieces. There’s a vibrancy to the scenic design by Bob Crowley, enhanced by Natasha Katz’s lighting, truly transporting audiences to the mythical Agrabah.

Photo: Deen van Meer

One of the elements that was missing from the recent Guy Ritchie-directed Aladdin film was an overwhelming muchness – Aladdin should be so visually exuberant that audiences almost drown in the energetic splendour of its spectacle. The musical has this effect and then some. The Cave of Wonders with its reflective vaulted ceilings is the ideal setting for “Friend Like Me” to unfold against. If you’re wondering “just how magical is the magic carpet anyway?” you’re not prepared to be utterly mystified, not just during “A Whole New World” but when the magic carpet later makes its appearance in broad daylight.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Then of course, there are the costumes designed by Gregg Barnes. Sparkly, opulent, bursting with detail and often completely covered in Swarovski crystals, it can’t be easy to move around in these, let alone dance and run up and down stairs backstage in between scenes. As with many other things, the costumes in this stage musical feel a cut above those seen in the live-action movie.

All the bells and whistles in the land are nothing without a strong cast, even in a show that is so reliant on bells and whistles. Thankfully, this production of Aladdin has that covered.

Photo credit: James Green

Graeme Isaako is a likeable lead who is up for the strenuous physicality of the role (as evidenced by the perspiration on his chest). Aladdin is the thief with a heart of gold, so he should have a playfulness to him with an underlying sincerity and a bit of dopiness, all of which Isaako delivers. Vocally, he is not as strong as the other two leads, meaning his renditions of soaring ballads like “Proud of Your Boy” are not quite as powerful as those performed by other Aladdins. However, Isaako more than makes up for it with a heroic presence that never crosses into outright arrogance.

Photo credit: James Green

Shubshri Kandiah is perfection as Jasmine. She ably captures the Disney Princess’ signature confidence and headstrong desire to break free from the shackles of tradition which dictate that she must be married off to a prince. Kandiah’s facial expressions seem to be patterned off the original animated Jasmine, such that it feels like the cartoon character has literally come to life onstage. In the 1992 film, Jasmine did not get an ‘I Want’ song the way most Disney Princesses do, which is rectified here with “These Palace Walls”. It’s a number that begins with perturbed defiance, then breaking into gliding wistfulness and concluding with a powerful declaration that Jasmine will find what awaits her. It’s worth shelling out for the more expensive tickets for Kandiah’s performance alone.

Photo credit: James Green

In the animated film, the star of the show was Robin Williams’ Genie. That singular iteration of the character leaves big shoes for anyone following to fill. James Monroe Iglehart won a Tony Award for originating the Genie role on Broadway, and Gareth Jacobs is more than up to the task of following those two towering takes on a beloved character.

Photo credit: Jeff Busby

Jacobs is having endless amounts of fun in the role, leaving everything onstage and pouring all his energy and wit into the performance. This is a sassy, fabulous Genie who has an attitude that is distinct from Williams’ version while still reminding audiences just enough of the fast-talking impressionist. Isaako and Jacobs work hard at selling the friendship between Aladdin and Genie, so it is emotional when they do fall out.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Patrick R. Brown is an imposing Jafar – the actor has experience playing Disney villains onstage, having portrayed Scar in The Lion King. This reviewer’s friend said Jafar should be a human version of Scar, which is what we get here. Jafar gets a new song called “Diamond in the Rough”, but it just feels like he is lacking a truly impact villain song – Jafar deserves a “Be Prepared”, a “Poor Unfortunate Souls” or a “Hellfire”, and the stage musical doesn’t really give him that.

Doron Chester is deliberately grating but also amusing as Iago, who is portrayed as a human henchman to Jafar instead of as a parrot. Chester aims for a Gilbert Gottfried quality in his voice, without going full-on screech.

Darren Yap brings a mix of dignity and amiable silliness to the Sultan, a character who’s rendered as less of a goofball than in the cartoon.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

The show’s weak link is Aladdin’s three friends Babkak, Omar and Kassim, played by Troy Sussman, Rob Mallett and Adam Di Martino respectively. These characters were in the original concept for the animated film, before being replaced by Abu the monkey, and are reinstated in this version. It is with these characters, one of whom makes many food puns, that the show feels the most pantomime-like. “High Adventure” goes on for much too long, and we long to be back with Aladdin, Jasmine and the Genie rather than with these side characters. Also, Aladdin’s life seems less tragic if he has three best friends who follow him around, instead of one monkey.

Photo credit: James Green

In its writing, Aladdin does sometimes feel like a pantomime or a theme park attraction, but its presentation is so lavish and elaborate that it never strays far from being Grade A entertainment. Aladdin is a night at the theatre that will leave you in awe of the performances and the stagecraft and will give you many sleepless nights trying to think just how they made that darn carpet fly. As the Sultan said in the animated film, “Splendid! Absolutely Marvelous!”

Jedd Jong

Aladdin is produced by Disney Theatrical Productions and presented by BASE Entertainment Asia, with co-presenters TEG Dainty, Singtel, Mediacrop VizPro and official serviced apartment partner Oakwood Premier.

Tickets start from $68 (excluding $4 booking fee). Visit https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/aladdin0919 to purchase tickets and find out more.

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