Aladdin Is a Storybook Come to Life on the Wortham Stage
Aladdin may not be one of Western culture's primary princess fairy tales (i.e., Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves), but it might as well be. It's the most famous of the stories that make up Scheherazade's One Thousand and One Nights, and thanks to Disney's 1992 film, a generation of millennials knows the story of the scrappy urchin who wins the heart of a princess with the help of a powerful lamp-enslaved genie. But while today's twentysomethings and their families know the story via Disney, choreographer David Bintley grew up watching it in pantomime as a youngster in the English countryside. Bintley created his ballet version of Aladdin on the National Ballet of Japan in 2008; his visually evocative interpretation of this storybook classic now joins the rich narrative repertoire of Houston Ballet.
As with just about every popular version of Aladdin, Bintley places the narrative in a generic setting somewhere in the Arab world, but what many people don't know is that the original story is set in China. Bintley stays true to this element by making Aladdin, his mother and his two best friends Chinese, a small band of foreigners in Manchu garb who are themselves just as enamored of the colorful, textured world onstage as the audience. Otherwise, the narrative structure of the ballet is similar to popular versions of the folk tale.
Aladdin is still a lighthearted young man of the streets who possesses the innate ability to find trouble and then finagle his way out of it. During a scuffle with the palace guards in the marketplace, an evil Mahgrib takes notice and helps Aladdin escape. The Mahgrib convinces Aladdin to help him retrieve a lamp that he's lost in a cave, and the eager scamp agrees. Aladdin finds the lamp, befriends the genie, falls in love with Princess Badr al-Budur, wins her hand in marriage, outsmarts the Mahgrib and then frees the genie in gratitude for his splendid new life. If that sounds like a lot of momentum for a story ballet, it is, but Bintley's effusive, sparkly choreographer keeps the action (and visual effects) from overwhelming the audience with too much bombast.
On opening night, Joseph Walsh entertained the audience with a spirited, dynamic performance of the central character. Walsh is a dancer of marvelous grace and nuance, but what I've always found fascinating is his ability to inhabit his characters from the inside out. Aladdin is not so much a hero as he is a lucky kid who catches a very big break. He might not win a fistfight, but he definitely has the edge when it comes to cunning and sheer gumption. Walsh manages to capture Aladdin's endearing charisma without slipping into pompous showboating, and his comedic impulses are appropriately funny. I'm thinking of the bathhouse scene in which he attempts to find the Princess Badr al-Budur, not by stealth but by thinking that he can blend in with the other women by simply throwing a white linen over himself and hoping that his boyish plodding goes unnoticed.
As the object of Aladdin's affection, Karina Gonzalez is a dazzling Princess Badr al-Budur. Her dance is light and ethereal, and her arms beautifully catch the Eastern flourishes of Carl Davis's magnetic score. In Act II's pas de deux, Gonzalez and Walsh partner with such levity that the lifts hardly seem like lifts at all. And their chemistry is appropriately young and ebullient, rather than the passionate, dramatic work of their Romeo and Juliet partnering.
In Disney's version, Aladdin often takes a secondary role to the standup act that is Robin Williams's Genie. Re-watching the animated film as an adult, it's safe to say that the Genie is its weakest element, since most of his one-liners are dated and for the simple fact that Williams is without question a relic of the '90s. Here, the Djinn of the Lamp is a commanding presence who dances the way one would expect a demigod to dance. Christopher Gray (last year's Peter Pan) is a dynamo in his balanced and expertly executed turns and bounding leaps. He may be under command by his owner-of-the-moment, but the Djinn is anything but secondary.
The corps was also in fine form, and I get the impression that this story ballet is a joy to dance. It's tempting to return and see how each role is handled by other dancers, especially the leads.
The dancing is dazzling, but so are Dick Bird's scenic design and Sue Blane's plethora of costumes. Each scene looks like a storybook brought to life, and the sets have the sharp, bold lines of handsome paper cutouts. The best of Blane's costumes are the royal threads of the Princess and the transformed Aladdin, but I love the golden trellises of the sirocco wind dancers in Act I, which not only beautifies the choreography but adds texture to the lovely canon work.
Bintley's Aladdin is fun and fast-paced, and a beautiful piece of craftsmanship. I assumed, and worried, that there would be special effects galore, but the wizardry is kept to a minimum in favor of strong dance moments by the lead players and the corps. And speaking of lead players, Aladdin marks another triumph for Joseph Walsh, who creates a spunky underdog of a protagonist worth rooting for.
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