8 August 2015 (Sat), Gekidan Shiki, Tokyo
I had heard good things about this Japanese-language production of Aladdin, which is completely sold out for nearly a year in advance. I’m always suspicious about anything by the Shiki group, but as a fan of the movie and still not having seen the show on Broadway, I accepted quickly when a friend wrote the day before with a ticket offer – ninth row center, no less. The tickets came from a fan from Shizuoka who is seeing this for her seventh time and had two extra seats. I was surprised at the relative lack of children in the audience, but I suppose normal families have no chance against the many rabid Shiki fans like her, who is willing to travel an hour and a half on the Shinkansen dozens of times to see the same show. A sad fact for theater fans, but Disney (whose The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid are also successfully managed in Japan by Shiki) must be laughing all the way to the bank.
The show is an excellent transition from film to stage. I could have done without Aladdin’s sappy reminiscences of his dead mother, which I don’t remember from the film, and while they did jettison Aladdin’s irritating monkey for three nicely varied human friends, Jafar’s parrot is now a sitcom companion who inherits all the bird’s flat one-liners. Very lazy writing. But the Genie successfully channels Robin Williams’ wild performance from the film, and they’ve gotten rid of Jafar’s hypnosis sideline for a more convincing portrayal, though he’s still pretty much the stock Disney villain. Aladdin and Jasmine are very attractively portrayed, making the romantic side of the story innocent but perfectly plausible. Still, the story is less the point than the dazzling staging: one spectacular set tops another, the costumes are glittery and flamboyant (and revealing), the outrageously inventive dances – which include chases, processions, fight sequences and more – cleverly recycle the performers to make it look like a huge cast, and there are staging and magic effects galore, including a breathtaking flying carpet sequence. They featured many scenes in front of the curtain to allow for the set changes, but it was all very smoothly handled with never a dull moment. The Genie makes his appearances variously via trap doors, flashes of smoke and other effects that really do make him seem magical. Technically the show left nothing to be desired. The mid-sized theater was almost too small to handle it; I’m curious to see it on Broadway.
The Genie (瀧山久志) didn’t have the manic unpredictability of a Robin Williams, the sense of making the part up as he went along. But he was high-spirited and kept events moving at a good clip. He was a big plus for the evening. Aladdin (島村幸大), while not straying too far from the Shiki mold acting-wise, was exceptionally agile, young, fit and a good singer, which makes up for a lot. (Minor beef: His height doesn’t really matter, but I do wish they had at least found a shorter Jasmine to pair him up with.) Jasmine (三井莉穂) and Jafar (牧野公昭) were more standard Shiki people, though they did well enough. Aladdin’s three newly created sidekicks were given specific personality traits that they played up very well, including an enjoyable fight sequence that gave each of them a chance to shine. This was the best film-to-stage change, and they all did a great job. The only actor I could have done without was Jafar’s sidekick, who combined a dumb part with the worst of Shiki acting.
Best of all, though, was the chorus. The hard-working cast had to switch among multiple roles and costumes throughout the show in crowd scenes, dances and speaking parts, with little down time. They managed to project a sense of individuality and fun rather than the usual mechanical style of bit Shiki players, and were terrific dancers to boot. I didn’t expect that at all. I found out afterwards that this is the first Shiki show that did not involve the aging founder Asari Keita, which makes me think that Disney must have kept a tight rein on this one. Hope that marks a new trend.
The book worked well in translation, and the Japanese lyrics were quite good, as usual with Shiki shows. The new songs fit wonderfully with the existing material, a big contrast with Menken’s The Little Mermaid – reflecting, I assume, his far superior lyricists for this show. Setting aside the depressing addition of Aladdin’s dead-mother worship (does he really need this fake Motivation?), the show was aiming at nothing but sheer entertainment, and it delivered. I noticed that it shared with The Lion King lots of naked bodies, which the audience (at least 80% female) must have loved, and a flying sequence. And they actually improved on that show in both counts. About as good a transfer from the movie as could be imagined in a surprisingly strong production. Bravo.