The Walt Disney musical Aladdin Jr was very recently performed in Guyana by the Georgetown International Academy. It was a school production which holds some significance because of the place it has earned on the local stage and the ancient tradition it follows in pantomimes and musicals based on fairy tales and traditional folk tales. Aladdin comes from a very interesting background and tradition.
The story of Alladin and the Magic Lamp is very well known and very old. It is regarded as one of the several fantastic Arabian tales and has even been associated with 1001 Arabian Nights, but there are uncertainties about its origin and identity. Just like many folk tales of this nature, different versions exist, such as Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp, which do not help to fix it.
According to the narrative of authentic versions, the story itself is set in China. However, within the story are many Muslim or Arabic references, while there is hardly anything clearly or identifiably Chinese. For example, a major protagonist in the story, the spirit of the lamp, is called a “Genie”. That is most definitely the spirit or being known to the Muslims as “jinni” (singular) or “jinn” (plural). “Genie” is an Anglicised appellation for the same creature who, in Arabian mythology and Islamic literature, was created out of smokeless fire, has supernatural powers and can be both benevolent and malevolent. Then the princess who Aladdin marries is the daughter of the Sultan. Furthermore, when the evil magician moves away Aladdin’s palace he places it far out in the (Arabian) desert.
It is a very old and very popular tale, recorded and referred to in the eighteenth century and is likely to be older. In fact, since the eighteenth century, it has been repeatedly adapted for the stage. Folk tales and fairy tales have always been used in traditional pantomimes, and Aladdin has been one of them. Since then there have been various stage plays and musicals, movies and animations. One of the movie adaptations was The Thief of Baghdad, while prominent among the musicals is the Disney version. Further adapted by Disney is an edition for children titled Aladdin Jr.
It is this Disney musical, Aladdin Jr, that was performed by the Georgetown International Academy (known to the people of Georgetown as “the American School”) as its 2016 dramatic production. This secondary school has an annual practice of staging a play for public consumption. There are only a very few other schools that have occasionally produced plays, including musicals, but this has been very sporadic, and no others have developed an annual production. So the GIA has an extremely important and unique distinction among schools in the city.
Recently St Joseph High did very well with Lloyd Thomas’ Little Garden of Bitter Weeds. The Bishops’ High, President’s College and West Demerara Secondary have been active, but largely because of the National Drama Festival. In previous years, School of the Nations staged musicals publicly, such as The Mikado. But there has been a waning of high school dramatic performance and it is only the annual drama festivals that have kept it alive for the past five years.
The GIA therefore stands out in this regard in the way it considers it important to have a drama and music programme. The Disney musical Aladdin Jr was directed by members of the GIA staff – English and Drama teacher Joanna Trim and music teacher Abigail Schultz, who was also the musical director. Trim is also a lecturer at the National School of Theatre Arts and Drama with a visible interest in theatre. Significantly, the GIA Director Dr Kelly Mekdeci outlined the school’s policy of promoting the arts and recognising drama as a subject with a place among the other academic disciplines.
One can only believe the words of Mekdeci who presented her position on production night that the school takes that policy seriously, because the students have delivered on stage. Another fact worth stating is that those schools responding to the call of the drama festivals have staged one-act plays, while the GIA produces full-length plays. That the GIA’s productions are musicals is an added jewel in the crown because of the more complex nature and the greater demands of musicals. They create a wider range of involvement, production elements and performance skills. What is more, the musical is a dramatic form that moves from exceeding popularity on Broadway in New York to rarity in Guyana. So this production added something to theatre locally, and in a larger context than the distinction GIA holds among schools. It offered a theatrical experience worth having.
As it is, Aladdin Jr quite entertained the audience; it was a very colourful and spectacular play. The drama used one of the versions of the Aladdin and the lamp story with a number of alterations in addition to the superimpositions of the songs and music. In this version Aladdin (Daniel Razick) only has three wishes. The villain of the piece is the Sultan’s chief official Jafar (Isaiah Tijero) who covets the princess for himself and plots dishonest schemes to get rid of Aladdin and trick the Sultan (Timothy Chand) into believing he is forced by law to let Jafar marry Princess Jasmine.
Also in this version, Aladdin uses one of his wishes to turn himself into Prince Ali since he thinks he would not be accepted by Jasmine as himself – a pauper. Also, the Genie (Rachel Mekdeci) expresses a great desire to be free – to end this eternal life of being tied as a servant to the lamp. Ironically, the Genie advises Aladdin to be himself and put aside the Prince Ali pretence. The irony is that, unknown to him, Jasmine (Bibi Mohamed) was more inclined to have him as Aladdin, rather than Ali or any other prince.
Here the play made moral statements much as one finds in fairy or folk tales. These settings are firmly fixed in monarchical and strictly class conscious, socially hierarchical societies where noble birth matters. The princess must marry a nobleman, but Jasmine rejects that tradition and finds the princes from whom she must choose boring, puffed up and empty. Regardless of class, her love goes out to the poor boy Aladdin in whom she finds nobility of character, a genuine person and greater depth of mind. The play is therefore making a statement to its audience, and very interestingly, the story even at the time of its ancient origins, challenged the norms of its society.
Moreover, the Genie took on life and character, much like the jinn of mythology, who could behave like humans and had free will. Aladdin’s genie wished for freedom from slavery to the lamp and whoever possesses it. Ironically, while he could grant any wish to his master, he could not realise his own wish, and it took the noble mind of Aladdin to selflessly use the last wish in his command to grant freedom to the genie. Also, this benevolent Genie recognised goodness in humans, took a liking to Aladdin, and advised him to be himself rather than pretending to be a prince.
The production brought these out quite clearly. It was true to its type by being very spectacular – great attention was paid to set and costuming. Both were colourful. The set tried to capture the fairyland world and was flexible and usable, while costuming was meticulous and fit the grandeur of a grand production. There were some good ideas, such as the attempt at technology with a moving flying carpet and the use of levels.
What was missing from this type of performance, however, was a greater emphasis on the use of dance and movement which was not enough. While there was evidence of work, there were many more opportunities for choreography that went untried. More of it would have complemented the music as well as the atmosphere of fantasy and myth, and the styles that usually enhance a pantomime or musical. But music was also a bit of a challenge for some of the performers who did not sustain the kind of richness that is expected in a musical. The singing performances were, in part, a bit off in this play.
However, where performance is concerned, the romantic leads Daniel Razick as Aladdin and Bibi Mohamed as Princess Jasmine worked quite well together and played with credibility. They made their situations credible, had the required ability in acting and voice that the play demanded and acted with understanding of roles and character. On the other hand, the narrators Ayushi Baidya, Anthony Islam, Sakinah Khan, Sofia Pinol and Mahima Pratab would have been stronger if they had a deeper understanding of their dramatic role.
There was good and adequate support from Kayla Beharry as Iago and Rachel Mekdeci who played the Genie with confidence, clarity and appropriate modifications for emotional variations. There was much group work, formations and choruses on stage as is always the case in musicals and pantomimes. These were handled with proficiency in this production.
There is just one question that necessarily arises because of the GIA’s choice of plays. It has opted to do Disney productions and it makes a point of setting the right example by seeking the rights and paying the royalties since the play is copyrighted material. Observing intellectual property rights is important, but in this case it is very expensive. One wonders why a secondary school finds it so essential to choose to do plays for which such expensive rights are required. There are dozens of musicals available, equal and better in quality and far cheaper than Disney. So the GIA can easily reduce its production costs by looking elsewhere for good, interesting performance material.