What do you think of when you think of Aladdin? I’ve recently watched the cartoon to prepare for the Opening Night of Aladdin Musical in Singapore, and it brought me back to my carefree childhood days of pretend: my mattress was a magic carpet that I would dislodge from the bed frame and slide on, my pajamas were DIY-ed and cut along the sides to look like Jasmine’s, and Aladdin? He was the cutest boy this all-girl’s school student had ever seen. Expectations were high, as was the anticipation, for the musical. When the curtain finally opened and the company performed “Arabian Nights,” a classic song I didn’t realize I knew all the words to, we knew instantly that we were going to be in for quite a show.
SHINING, SHIMMERING, SPLENDID
The first thing that wows you is the set. Award-winning set designer Bob Crowley found a way to depict magic with some tricks of his own. GIST had the privilege of going backstage before the opening night, and we got a glimpse of the buildings, the platforms and the backdrops — which, to be honest, didn’t look like much from behind the curtain. Seeing all the sets and props come to life was, without exaggeration, a spellbinding experience.
Crowley only watched the original film once to research his set design. “I certainly couldn’t be slavish to the film,” he said. “The one thing I did take from the film was the image of the dunes and the tiger’s head coming out of the sand.” Instead on focusing on the already popular Disney material, the designer spent his time looking at Middle Eastern tiles, rugs, textiles and architecture. “The art of that region involves elaborate geometrical invention based on flowers and other botanical forms. I also looked at Indian miniature paintings and old Hollywood films of the “Arabian Nights” genre, as well as the Bing Crosby and Bob Hope road pictures. All of that was woven into the tapestry of the show.”
The lighting was a character in the musical, too, without a doubt. Rendering the applicable ambiance to key performances, as in Aladdin’s melancholic “Proud of Your Boy,” and Genie’s over-the-top “Friend Like Me.” The red lights and green smoke forewarned the audiences of Jafar and his sidekick Iago. The costumes glistened from 50-feet away, thanks to the meticulous placement of crystals on every ensemble — half a million Swarovski crystals to be exact. Backstage, we were told that after every rehearsal, the crew would patiently search every crevice on the stage for stray Swarovskis that must be sewed back on. With 108 costume changes (there are two that happen in just seconds, magic!) every show, they very well can’t afford to be throwing crystals away.
All in all, “Aladdin Musical” brought 200 tons worth of gear to Singapore. That’s equivalent to 33 African elephants in Aladdin math. But with multiple Tony Award winners costume designer Gregg Barnes and lighting designer Natasha Katz as Crowley’s collaborators, he brought the Agrabah we knew from the Disney animation to life, in a truly spectacular fashion. It really is what sets the production apart — the world it has created on stage is hard to beat.
HOLD YOUR BREATH, IT GETS BETTER
Where would the show be without its beloved cast of characters — misfits, really — that audiences have found relatable since they were first introduced in the animated film in 1992? Part of the charm of Aladdin is, magic carpets and genies aside, its relatability and underlying theme: the feeling of being trapped in one’s circumstances and the desire to see, be, and experience more. Aladdin (Graeme Isaako) is a “street rat” who dreams of bigger things, because he wants to make his late mother proud. Jasmine (Shubshri Kandiah) is a princess who wants to see what the real world is like. Genie (Gareth Jacobs) is a benevolent spirit who is a prisoner in his own lamp. Aladdin’s gang, Babkak (Troy Sussman), Omar (Adam Di Martino) and Kassim (Rob Mallet) are loyal friends who dream of a better life. Even Jafar (Patrick R Brown) and Iago (Doron Chester) are captives to their greed.
They tell their story in familiar songs that get the audience invested and holding their breath. We know the story, but we’re still watching. Without giving anything away, I would say the script has been slightly tweaked to be modern and funny in a very Disney way. Genie was a delight to watch; you’ll never know what that guy is going to say, as was everybody on the cast who performed with soul and sang the musical numbers beautifully.
“Proud of Your Boy,” a song that was cut from the original film, found its rightful place in the musical. Composer Alan Menken shared, “That song packs an enormous emotional punch, and men in particular seem to relate to it deeply. So many of us go through a disappointing phase when we are disappointing our parents, or we think we are.”
A WHOLE NEW WORLD
When Aladdin and Jasmine jump on the magic carpet (the producers would not reveal the magic behind it, however), the audience becomes tense; I could tell my seatmate was getting teary-eyed. Heck, I was. It was just a nice moment that brings you back to why Aladdin is such a well-loved story, how the songs were once upon a time a part of our lives, and how they still are.
In the musical, however, we find a Jasmine who is more vocal about wanting to rule the kingdom. While we’ve seen Disney princesses get more and more outspoken in film, it’s a bigger challenge to pull that off in a musical, without adding any new songs on the theme. She was already clever and independent to begin with, but with a few seamlessly injected one-liners here and there, Jasmine in the Aladdin Musical, thanks to the comedic timing of Kandiah, is remembered as a feminist character in a male-dominated world.
But among all of the show’s triumphs Gareth Jacob’s larger-than-life portrayal of Genie steals the show. You want a Genie that’s adorable, cuddly, non-threatening — a Genie that you’d want Aladdin to set free because you just LOVE him. That’s the Genie we got in the musical. Get him all the chili crab he wants.
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Aladdin Musical runs until September 1 at the Sands Theater, Marina Bay Sands, Singapore.