I’M in the heart of London’s West End, standing underneath the stage in the Prince Edward Theatre.
Just 10 minutes earlier, this backstage warren of corridors, lights and cables was a hive of activity as the cast of one of the world’s biggest musical theatre productions took their bows to rapturous applause.
Disney’s Aladdin started life as an Oscar-winning 1992 animation, much-loved for the late Robin Williams’ performance as voice of the Genie. Aladdin inspired a TV show, theme park rides and finally a musical which opened in Broadway in 2014. Now it’s in the West End - and what a show!
With an array of special effects, including a ‘magic book’ and, in a breathtaking scene, a flying carpet taking Aladdin and Jasmine through a shimmering starlit sky, it’s a visual feast and a perfect family musical, with laughs, romance, action, and songs that have become movie classics.
I caught Aladdin on a London theatre break, staying at the Strand Palace Hotel, a short walk from the theatre.
Excitement rippled through the auditorium as the curtain rose on the city of Agrabah, bursting with colour and movement. Scene after scene was a treat for the eyes, from the bustling bazaar to the Cave of Wonder, filled with glittering gold and countless jewels.
Based on Arabian folktale Aladdin and the Magic Lamp from One Thousand and One Nights, t’s the story of a spirited street urchin chosen as a “diamond in the rough” by an evil would-be sultan, Jafar, who tricks Aladdin into entering a cave containing countless jewels and a magic lamp...
Cue a larger-than-life Genie and three wishes, leading to Aladdin faking a regal identity to impress Jasmine, the sultan’s headstrong daughter who yearns for independence and romance on her own terms.
A terrific cast was led by an endearing Dean John-Wilson as Aladdin, Jade Ewan as feisty Jasmine, Don Gallagher as villainous Jafar and Trevor Dion Nicholas in a scene-stealing performance as the Genie. From the moment he burst from the magic lamp, he had the audience in stitches. Whenever he disappeared, he looked like he was melting into the stage, and his showstopping performance of Friend Like Me was a delight, capturing the magic of Hollywood’s golden musical era. It's a highlight from a fabulous score, featuring favourites like Prince Ali and A Whole New World.
After the show I was lucky enough to be invited backstage, to see what goes into making the spectacular production.
Within minutes of the curtain falling on the feelgood finale, the stage was empty and the cast had disappeared to their various dressing-rooms. Standing on the now silent stage - the scene of much action, high-energy song and dance routines and thrilling special effects - felt strangely eerie. Looking down, I noticed lines and curves running across the stage; enabling it to be moved around at various points during the show.
Above us, the magic carpet hovered in the air. The backstage team remained tight-lipped as to how it flies through the air - I like to think it really is magic! In the wings were stacks of props, including glittering ‘jewels’ from Aladdin’s cave, delicious-looking 'cakes', Jafar’s hissing snake, and swords used in an action-packed fight scene which looked, and felt, like the real thing. There were harem pants, bejewelled hats, feathers, scarves and racks of costumes which cast members wriggle in and out of in a series of quick changes - 108 costume changes take place in less than a minute and 58 costume changes in less than 30 seconds! Some of the beaded and bejewelled costumes are incredibly heavy - you don’t realise, sitting in the audience, being entertained, what a physical challenge it is to perform in these garments, with a face covered in layers of stage make-up, beneath hundreds of bright theatre lights.
There are 337 costumes, from Aladdin’s robes to the Genie’s jazz-suit-and-harem-pant combo, and for the wardrobe department it’s a huge task maintaining them and carrying out repairs between performances. There are 712 different styles of beads in the costumes - a single pair of pants in the finale of Friend Like Me feature 1,428 Swarovski crystals - that’s a lot of beads to replace through wear and tear.
Behind the scenes it's a mine of technical wizardry. The production blends 21st century technology and traditional theatrical techniques; with 84 special effects, 18 scenic backdrops, 400 lights hung over the stage, and almost 50 pieces of scenery in the air, it takes 180 people to deliver each performance.
Backstage, it really is a Whole New World.
* Disney’s Aladdin at the Prince Edward Theatre, London, is booking into 2017. For full details go to aladdinthemusical.co.uk
* The Strand Palace Hotel is on the Strand, London. For more information call 0207 379 4737 or visit strandpalacehotel.co.uk