When it was announced that Aladdin the musical was coming to the West End, the first thing I knew and rejoiced was that this would mean 100% diversity would be applied to the casting! I wasn’t wrong. Although set in the fictitious Middle Eastern town of Agragba, the true origins of the Aladdin tale is actually said to be China! Somehow over time the origins have been shifted and now we all assume it to be a fantastic Arabian tale. But, for once, this re-write of history works in our favour because it allows us a fantastic musical with a multi-ethnic cast of talent.
Taking inspiration from the popular 1992 Disney animation, the story follows the infamous street urchin Aladdin who’s forced into the ‘Cave of Wonders’ by the Sultan of Agrabah’s right hand man Jafar (who has bad intentions to take over as Sultan). Tasked to find a magic lamp, things don’t go quite to Jafar’s plan when upon finding the lamp Aladdin unwittingly releases an exuberant and powerful Genie who grants him three wishes. Thus begins an adventure of love, magic and of course great song.
Staged in the Prince Edward theatre the Aladdin set is impressive. Award-winning designer Bob Crowley and team have recreated Aladdin’s world of street market, desert, and Sultan’s Palace with eye-capturing detail using such an enthralling colour palate which at times, takes your breath away. But it’s the Cave of Wonders which will have you feeling like a ‘kid in a candy store’ with its all gold and shiny everything; it’s in this wondrous cave that we meet the other show stealer, The Genie. Played by African American actor Trevor Dion Nicholas, who we briefly meet as the on stage narrator at the start of show. Reappearing as The Genie, Nicholas single-handedly elevates this musical. With his snappy one-liners filled with popular culture references, humorous warmth and fantastic and welcomed, lengthy rendition of ‘Friend Like Me’ Nicholas deserved every bit of his standing ovation when the curtains fell. The Genie voiced by the late great Robin Williams in Disney’s’ 1992 animation also stole the cartoon, Nicholas does him great justice. To the point every time he reappeared on stage you could feel the audience’s silent sigh of relief.
The only sticking point if I’m going to put my political hat on, is that especially at a time when we’re experiencing the worst racial tension post-Brexit, current Trump and Black Lives Matter, it’s a little hard to shake the deeper connotations of having The Genie, cast as an African American whose freedom is dependent on the whim / good nature of his non-African American master. Aladdin is Middle Eastern and if you know your history, Arabs had a big stake in the slave trading of Africans, preceding even western enslavers. It’s unfortunate that even whilst watching a magical tale such as this, from my perspective as a British African I couldn’t fully escape.
I also wondered if it weren’t for Aladdin, how do the rest of the cast the dancers, the singers, the supporting company make their bread and butter. If not for The Lion King and Aladdin, where do British ethnic cast members find work? I would say the stage is a better place for African Caribbean actors at least… but for Asian both Southern and Eastern, and other ethnicities too light to be cast as black too dark to be cast as white… what’s their theatre experience like? Irvine Iqbal plays the Sultan; Princess Jasmine’s father. He does a commendable job in his role, kind of handsome too in that hey let me introduce you to my older sister type way… his career credits are extensive, notably filled with culturally toned productions including Bend it Like Beckham, The Mahabharata, Jallabies and Tea for example… Whilst watching Iqbal and the rest of the cast excel in their roles, I couldn’t help thinking cynical thoughts, ‘They know when to find them when they need them’…
Back on review, Dean John-Wilson who plays Aladdin is the right amount of cute, cheeky and scoundrel and he carries being the lead with ease. Princess Jasmine is played by the very well-cast former Sugababe, Jade Ewen. She and John-Wilson’s on stage chemistry is believable and their romance sucks you in and has you routing for them even though we all well know the happy ending. The last play I saw Ewen in was when she played Clara in Porgy and Bess at Regent’s Park Open Air theatre a few years ago, and I must say it’s quite inspiring, and evokes a sense of pride to see her transition from pop star to credible stage performer.
I almost forgot to mention the ‘Whole New World’ magic carpet moment, which comes a close second behind the Cave of Wonders.
For that feel good feeling book your tickets ASAP.
To book tickets for Aladdin go to the Prince Edward Theatre website