The Setup: 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 know the story of the scrappy urchin who wins the heart of a princess with the help of a powerful lamp-entrapped genie. The story has been fashioned into just about every form of entertainment, including ballet. David Bintley's visually evocative interpretation of this storybook classic joins the rich narrative repertoire of Houston Ballet for an action-packed production that doesn't skimp on the dancing.
The Execution: Like just about every popular version of Aladdin, Bintley's 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 who are themselves just as enamored of the colorful, textured world onstage as the audience. Otherwise, Bintly's take is similar to most popular versions of the story.
Joseph 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 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, ( Karina Gonzalez) 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.
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In Disney's version, Aladdin often takes a secondary role to the standup act that is Robin Williams' Genie. Re-watching the animated film as an adult, it's safe to say that the Genie is its weakest element, as 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 Verdict: Bintley's Aladdin is fun and fast-paced, and a beautiful piece of craftsmanship in regards to set design and costumes. I assumed, and worried, that there would be special effects galore, but the wizardry was 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. Aladdin runs through March 2 at Brown Theater, Wortham Center. Principals Connor Walsh and Sarah Webb alternate with Joseph Walsh and Karina Gonzalez in the Aladdin and Princess roles. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit the ballet's website.