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Magic Carpet Ride 

Aladdin lacks focus, but then, so do kids' lives

Wednesday, Dec 18 2002
Kids these days have all sorts of distractions, as the press material for this show points out -- "computer games and videos, DVDs and the all-pervasive influences of television." So it seems unbelievable that every single child who saw Aladdin when I did, last week, knew the story. Three school groups showed up, and everybody recognized the characters well enough to hiss at the villains and cheer for the heroes. I realize that Disney made a big Robin Williams Aladdin film 10 years ago, but that was, well, 10 years ago. Surely a few kids have found other DVDs to watch? Apparently not. Aladdin is a generational classic, part of the new pop canon, and it's pervasive enough to cut through a river of Nintendo cartridges and TV shows.

The San Francisco Shakespeare Festival is retelling the Aladdin story in "panto" form, which asks kids in the audience to sing along and yell things. Panto is a sort of British commedia dell'arte, not pantomime. Its stock characters involve a "principal boy," always played by a woman (in this case Kimberly Jensen as Aladdin), and the Panto Dame, played by a man (Geoff Hoyle, as the Widow Tuankhet). S.F. Shakes first ventured into panto last year, with a stale Cinderella, but this mixed-bag Aladdin may be a success because the story is alive in so many children's minds.

The tale of Aladdin belongs to the Arabian Nights, meaning it's about 1,000 years old. The British panto version has been around for 200 years, which makes it a new arrival, but still more venerable than Disney's. Playwrights Amy and Allen McKelvey stick, more or less, to the panto version. In it, Aladdin is the poor son of a widowed laundress named Madame Tuankhet (pronounced "TWAIN-kee," a word that once reminded British audiences of a certain kind of tea). Aladdin falls in love with a princess, but before their romance can bloom the boy is pressed into service by a schemer named Ala Ben-Azar. Ben-Azar needs Aladdin to crawl through the Cave of Wonders for a certain magic lamp. A genie springs from the lamp, and Aladdin can wish for clothes and wealth to make himself a match for the princess, but when Ben-Azar takes the lamp for himself things go very, very wrong.

The McKelveys use names that kids will remember from the Disney version, like Jasmine for the princess (instead of Balroubadour). They also use a narrator named Billy Grubber to mediate between the restless kids and the complicated story. Grubber's an overgrown Australian schoolboy, with a cap and tie and shorts, who runs around and encourages the audience to yell "G'day Grubber!" when they see him. Michael Smith plays him with infectious energy, and then he doubles as the magic carpet.

I have no idea why the McKelveys wrote an Australian schoolboy into the script, but the show needs Grubber. Aladdin lasts more than two hours, with an intermission. Even with Hoyle in outrageous drag, Aladdin flags now and then, especially during the songs. The McKelveys borrow and change pop songs for comic effect: The opening number is a lackluster version of "Midnight at the Oasis," sung to canned music, and the rest of the pieces fare only a little better. "I (Who Have Nothing)" is good because Aladdin sings it, and Kimberly Jensen has a fine, strong voice. "I'm a Woman" is funny because the Widow Tuankhet sings it, and Hoyle is obviously not a woman. "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine," sung by the Grand Vizier (Lee Strawn), "This I Promise You," sung by Aladdin and Princess Jasmine (Tielle Baker), and "If I Were Not Up On the Stage," sung by Grubber -- as well as several other songs -- fall flat.

Hoyle does brilliant work as the widow, pausing each time he comes out to let the audience laugh at his costume. "Do you like this one?" he asks, wearing green feather puffs and an immodest bustier. "Talk about Silicon Valley!" He adjusts his boobs, then reaches back to attend to a wedgie. "Never mind the San Andreas fault." The Widow Tuankhet is an overdressed trollop with a taste for money -- and for criticizing her son. She's a crowd-pleaser, but the McKelveys make so many jokes about the gender switch that an audience of children, after a while, isn't sure whether to keep laughing. The kids also don't go for quite as many fart jokes as you'd expect.

Jensen is a solid and boyish Aladdin, and Baker is alluring as Princess Jasmine. Mel McMurrin is a wonderfully horrid Ala Ben-Azar, shuffling around the stage in a cape with a wide, spangled, green collar that resembles the wings of a cobra. His makeup is a hideous fleshy green. The audience hisses at him constantly, and he seems to relish it. His version of Burt Bacharach's "What's New, Pussycat?" is an awful low point in the show, but in Ben-Azar's case that's a compliment.

Todd Roehrman also deserves credit for his limitlessly imaginative costumes, from the Grand Vizier's turban to the Widow Tuankhet's crimes against taste, from sexy harem-girl ensembles to a two-person suit evoking Siptah the dancing camel. The show itself is just as varied and colorful. It has all the elements of a really good children's panto, in fact, but the elements are scattered, as if director Allen McKelvey had given up on his job. Aladdin has everything but focus and discipline. S.F. Shakes can't afford such indulgence, even in a children's show. Given all those modern distractions, a production that wants to introduce kids to live theater should at least get to the point.


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