Of all of the classic animations in Disney's vault, Aladdin, on paper, seems like an odd choice to be remade into a stage musical. Sure, the 1992 movie was a box office success but how can all that animated movie magic – the shape-shifting genie, the flying carpet, those life-altering wishes – possibly be translated to the stage?
Yet when the curtain rose on opening night at Auckland's Civic Theatre, it becomes clear that one should never doubt the House of Mouse. The Kingdom of Agrabah immediately leaps to life thanks to a dazzling beast of a set, stacked with detailed costumes and stunning song and dance numbers that demonstrate Disney has given this its all.
The result is a bombastic production oozing with class and style.
After the tone-defining set piece of Arabian Nights, the familiar story begins with a Broadway twist. Aladdin is still a sneaky street scamp but the emotional stakes have been raised. Proud of Your Boy, a brilliant new addition to Aladdin's songbook, gives Aladdin that character defining power ballad that all musical heroes need. He feels like a wholly new character, thanks in part to New Zealander Graeme Isaako who injects mischievous innocence into the role.
The whole cast embraces the challenge of this musical. Adam Murphy is malevolent perfection as the scheming Jafar while Shubshri Kandiah encapsulates Jasmine's fiery disposition. However, Bob Crowley's dazzling set risks stealing the show. From shape-shifting buildings to towers of gold, there is always so much happening in the background that you are left dizzied but mesmerised.
You can't talk about Aladdin without discussing the Genie. Gareth Jacobs has the dubious honour of reinventing Robin Williams' iconic role but excels with a camp reimagining that commands every scene he's in. His skills are best displayed during Friend Like Me, a show-stopping showcase for everything Aladdin does right: catchy music, playful lyrics, dancing that's exhausting just to watch. Jacobs and the talented ensemble more than earned an incredibly rare mid-show standing ovation.
If only the show ended there.
Friend Like Me is a note-perfect number that raises the bar, but the show doesn't reach those heights again. Instead, after a bit of theatrical wizardry in A Whole New World, the songs are unremarkable and the plot unimportant. The climax, unable to recreate the movie's grand imagery, feels rushed and underwhelming, the writers clearly scrambling to reach the happy ending.
The precedence of the song and dance over any sense of story risks creating a product that is all shimmer and no substance. Yet Aladdin's legacy survives thanks to the unquestionable brilliance of the first act. The spectacle is grander and more entertaining that many of its theatrical contemporaries, so that even though the lows may dull the experience, you'll still leave with a grin on your face and a sparkle in your step.
What: Disney's Aladdin – the Musical
Where & when: Auckland's Civic Theatre, until March 2
Reviewed by: Ethan Sills