Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Aladdin - Sunderland Empire Theatre

Aladdin by George Wood
Director: Doug Quinn

Reviewer: Ian Cain

I love panto. And panto, when done properly, is a magical experience – an eclectic group of people producing a real family show. However, panto done badly is excruciating. Marketed as ‘the most star-studded pantomime in the North East,’ Sunderland Empire has brought together Paul Michael Glaser (Starsky from Starsky and Hutch) and Sheila Ferguson (lead singer of The Three Degrees and accomplished West End star.)
In terms of big names Glaser and Ferguson are certainly crowd-pullers, but this is panto, remember – a genre that seems peculiar to Britain, with its mix of cross-dressing, stand-up, seaside post-card humour, drama and musical theatre all rolled into one. American performers are renowned for not ‘getting’ it.

Fortunately, both stars have performed in pantomime previously and seem comfortable with the genre. Glaser plays the evil Abanazar and does a pretty good job of it, too. He successfully works the audience and visually suits the role, although his performance would flourish further if he relaxed a little more. Ferguson, doubling-up as The Slave of the Ring and The Genie of the Lamp, works hard throughout. She looks and sounds fantastic and has wonderful stage presence. The touch of West End class and sultry sophistication that she injects into the production is much-needed.

The title role is played by Anthony Kavanagh (Grease Is The Word finalist) and he is sensational. Combining a great voice, good looks and an affable personality, he represents the quintessential fairy-tale hero. His flying carpet solo scene, in which he performs Breaking Free (from High School Musical) represents one of the highlights of the show. Steve Walls, as Wishee Washee, is completely under-utilised. This hugely talented performer’s abilities are wasted for the most part, but credit must be given to him for seizing and making the most of every opportunity that he was given. His affinity with the kids in the audience was delightfully evident when four were brought on stage for a sing-song.
For all this production boasts big-name signings and strong supporting performers, it is also saddled with its fair share of lame ducks. Dale Meeks is horrendously mis-cast as Widow Twankey. He seems self-conscious and ill-at-ease as the dame and his performance is cringe-worthy. Meeks must learn that a mess in a dress, with a decidedly common use of local slang, does not constitute an archetypal pantomime dame – and the sooner the better.

Kelly-Anne Gower appears as Princess Jasmine (although the original marketing material listed Jennifer Hubilla from Miss Saigon) and delivers a one-dimensional performance. Worse still, her ‘singing voice’ sounded more like a broken bottle being dragged along a cobbled street. Masashi Fujimoto (Banzai) plays The Emperor and, for the most part, any dialogue that he is required to deliver is completely inaudible. Sam Bradshaw, who had kindly given his acting talents the night off on press night, relied on his circus skills to carry his performance as Pongo the Policeman.

George Wood’s ploddingly predictable, cliché-ridden and banal script is, perhaps, even more to blame and it felt as though it had been scribbled on the back of a used envelope during a ten minute tea-break. In pantoland, all that glitters is not gold and this production proves that throwing inordinate amounts of money at a show does not automatically guarantee a resounding success. Only the sterling efforts of Sheila Ferguson, Paul Michael Glaser, Anthony Kavanagh and Steve Walls saved this panto from being a disaster and each of them should be commended.
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