The advertisement for Birmingham Royal Ballet’s Aladdin shows a patchily painted, clumsily bewigged fellow who more closely resembles a Blue Man Group reject than the star of a big-budget ballet. Fortunately, this awkward facsimile is a less-than-accurate representation of the stage design for this production, created for National Ballet of Japan in 2008 and first performed by Birmingham Royal Ballet in 2012. The show is a magic carpet ride of towering minarets and glittering mounds of treasure, with splashy colours and finely crafted details at every turn. Dick Bird’s sets are vibrant and (with the exception of some goofy puppets in the third act) elegant, while Sue Blane’s costumes are spectacularly dreamy. Both embrace flash while resisting the cartoonish.
I can’t say the same depth applies to the libretto, which is clunky and bloated, spanning three acts when it could easily cover the action in two. The seesaw plot sees Aladdin find the lamp, get the girl, lose the lamp, lose the girl, reclaim both and ride off into the sunset – developments that are each accompanied by their own set, cast of characters and procession of divertissements. The narrative thinness and superfluous scenes are no bad things; they simply shift more attention onto David Bintley’s choreography, which is frequently gripping, if formulaic. But the broad-strokes approach to characterisation lets the ballet down sorely. César Morales’s dopey Aladdin is amiable, sure, but there’s no intensity or friskiness to his performance. If ever there was a place for mischief, surely it’s the Cave of Wonder. And perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Disney, but what’s a genie if not exuberant? Aitor Galende is sturdy but tame in this role; the real verve comes from Tyrone Singleton’s baddie, played in the campy villain tradition, and Jenna Roberts’s princess, who’s sweet, eager and refined.
These characters get limited airtime; this is a ballet that belongs to the corps, who gamely transform from souk vendors to palace guards to magical creatures and more. The many divertissements prove a handy vehicle for showing off the company’s versatility, with numbers that are sensual, ethereal, sassy and stately by turn. The ‘desert winds’ ushering Aladdin to the magic cave are erotic and sleek, sweeping in circles amid sand dunes fashioned from drapery, and the gems inside are even silkier. Here Bintley opts for a Balanchine approach, orchestrating a parade of jewel-inspired dances amid the lair’s icy stalactites and skeletal mouth: regal emeralds, sugary diamonds, feisty rubies with punchy leaps and upside-down lifts. Shout-out to the sapphires, led by Delia Mathews, mermaid-like in a periwinkle seashell bodice. Her sultry, nimble cavorting is some of the show’s most enchanting material.
Most of the ballet’s highlights (narrative and choreographic) occur in the first act, making for a plodding final two-thirds. Elements I could have done without here include the random appearances by Aladdin’s mother, Aladdin himself’s stiff background lingering and the countless flurries of hammy miming. On the plus side, these acts bring us a brilliant bathhouse scene – a steamy vision of turbans, towels and swaying odalisques – and a bouncy showstopper led by the genie, with handstands, clapping and a chorus line. There’s also a quick caper involving a dragon, one of several incongruous but handsome Chinese details.
Aladdin never fully finds its feet, but there’s a lot to like about the show, from the cheery group numbers to the striking visuals. Carl Davis’s score deserves a special mention, especially in the bathhouse scene, where silvery chimes accent full-bodied Arabian strings.
Go for the bright colours and family-friendly vibe; just don’t hold your breath waiting for the finesse.