Review: ALADDIN at Princess Of Wales

Disney adaptation has a genie-rous helping of stage magic

By: Feb. 23, 2024
Review: ALADDIN at Princess Of Wales
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It’s Genie’s world…we just live in it.

That’s the feeling you might get from Mirvish’s current presentation of ALADDIN, adapted from the 1992 Disney film, which provides some nifty stage magic and one fully awesome performance in the form of Marcus M. Martin’s delightful djinn.

The story of the ascendance of young, scrappy Aladdin from “street rat” to sultan in Agrabah, this morality tale about the importance of pure-heartedness, self-determination and using your power to help others is a straightforward, fun show that expands slightly on the original film’s memorable musical numbers by the team of Alan Menken, Tim Rice, and the late, great Howard Ashman. If you have nostalgic childhood feelings for the Disney classic, like I do—who else had the colour-changing Cave of Wonders fast food cup and the Sega Genesis game? Anyone?—you’ll enjoy yourself here.

Unlike more artistic efforts in the Disney brand such as The Lion King (destined for a new sit-down production coming to Toronto of this year), ALADDIN is more of a run-through of the movie live than an elevation of the form, but one with enough wonders in its cave to keep you enthralled. It’s entertainment that does exactly what it sets out to do, granting no more and no fewer than exactly three wishes.

Genie, like Robin Williams’ version, is the first “wish,” providing the show with its driving, chaotic force. Because we’ve had decades to witness his character’s popularity and staying power, the musical elevates him to narrator, as he introduces and frames the show while singing our opener, “Arabian Nights.” That works well, because Genie is essentially a (more) magical stage manager. Whenever Martin is on stage, he commands it, working the audience, leading the dancing chorus, and even calling on tech for a blackout.

“Friend Like Me,” the Act One number in which the Genie shows off his repertoire of tricks, is one of the most memorable numbers in the Disney canon, and director and choreographer Casey Nicholaw does it justice with sparkling costumes, an extended dance routine, magical food that springs out from containers seemingly too small to contain it, and all the bells and whistles one could possibly imagine. It’s an show-stopping attempt to recreate the animated wizardry, and it succeeds admirably—wish #2.

The design of ALADDIN grants wish #3, where it shines as brightly as the mountains of gold in a mysterious cave. Set designer Bob Crowley and lighting designer Natasha Katz pull off Aladdin and Jasmine’s smooth magic carpet ride to “A Whole New World” against a curtain of stars; the background is so dark that the technical effect is complete, and I was left wondering how they did it. Getting from the outside to the inside of the Cave of Wonders is a fantastic journey from projections to practical effects, and the quick changes—oh, the quick changes!—would make any costumer bow to designer Gregg Barnes. Even the opening curtain—or, should I say, curtains, made of dozens of overlapping “magic carpet” rugs that ripple in the breeze—is a little bit thrilling.

While the adaptation clearly still contains plenty of the fantastical, it smartly pulls a 180 from The Lion King and removes the animal characters entirely. There’s no person dressed as a monkey, and Iago is colourfully dressed but presented as a human henchman, Aaron Choi successfully scuttling around, giving more Gilbert Gottfried than parrot at the side of Anand Nagraj’s delectably evil, silky-voiced Jafar. This works to keep our suspension of disbelief from being pulled in too many ways, grounding the magic solely in Genie’s domain.

In the monkey Abu’s stead, Aladdin now has a trio of human friends, Kassim, Omar, and Babkak (on opening night played by understudies Brandon Burks, Kyle Caress and J. Andrew Speas), who help him in his schemes until his ambitions get too big, but come through for him in the end. Their hijinks on the new number “High Adventure” are entertaining, and it’s a treat to hear Ashman’s clever lyrics, cut from the film, on stage. However, Aladdin’s friends don’t add a lot to the story in the end, and the one-note characterization of Babkak as Disney’s traditional plus-sized character whose only trait is obsession with food, and who delivers more puns based on Middle Eastern dishes than you thought possible, feels regressive.

These new characters do, though, help to reorient the show as one with a message more about friendship and autonomy than love at first sight; as one of Aladdin’s new songs with the Genie puts it, this is the beginning of a fine bromance. More than anything, the characters bond over a shared feeling of being trapped: trapped within unfair laws, within a tiny lamp, within social class or gender roles.

The love story between Aladdin and Jasmine is sweet, but, as in the movie, somewhat underwritten. Adi Roy is a handsome Aladdin with that essential inner spark of creativity, his insouciance gradually becoming a more mature concern for others. However, a few small changes make the character seem less pure of heart; this makes him more complex, but also makes it less clear why he is the “diamond in the rough.” Aladdin also has great scene chemistry with Genie; this actually overshadows his relationship with Jasmine, simply because both of their parts remain somewhat underwritten.

Senzel Ahmady plays her part with spirit, grace, and a lovely voice as she strains against the proscribed nature of her life. However, one wishes Chad Beguelin, adding on to Menken’s music and Rice and Ashman’s lyrics (with new music from Menken as well), had spent more time giving her more personal musical numbers and dialogue so we could see who she is beyond her resistance of gender roles. It’s especially notable considering she is the show’s only named female character; Jasmine gets her own trio of ladies in waiting who don’t even get the single character trait allotted to each of Aladdin’s friends, but do flirt with them.

Similarly, while Aladdin gets far more to do and a more developed life, his repeated introspective number, “Proud of Your Boy” (written by the original trio and cut from the film), is pretty generic and unmemorable fare compared to the blockbuster pieces we know and love by the same artists.

But really, the night isn’t about well-developed lead characters. It’s about shimmering magic that appears in a puff of smoke. It’s about buttery-voiced villains and quirky sidekicks turning the sinister laughter up to the nth degree while providing meta commentary on their own wickedness. It’s about love triumphing over the law, and good over evil.

And it’s about a genie who might, just might, get to wear a Hawaiian shirt as he heads out on his first vacation in 10,000 years.

Photo of Marcus M. Martin and Aladdin Touring Company by Deenvan Meer


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