Theatre review: Aladdin at the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells

Cole Porter’s lost musical has its moments, but can’t compare to the great composer’s masterpieces

�It’s a peculiar feeling heading to the theatre on one of the hottest days of the year to see a story usually associated with pantomime.

After the live broadcast of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella reached over 100 million people, CBS tried to replicate its success by commissioning Cole Porter to adapt Aladdin. It proved to be his last work in 1958 and has never received a faithful stage adaptation.

The tone is all over the place in this bare-bones staging, It’s difficult to tell whether the original was supposed to be a lush Oriental extravaganza in the vein of Kismet or an American panto of sorts. Richard Dempsey’s Aladdin looks and sounds like an ex-public schoolboy, while his mother (Vivienne Martin) is far more old Hoxton Market than old Peking.

Much of S.J. Perelman’s book is steeped in syrup and it’s strangely most watchable when the comedy tips off the end of the pier. The double act of Aladdin’s mum and pickpocket neighbour Wu Fang (the shamelessly hammy Stewart Permutt) offers a glimpse into what EastEnders would look like if it was a sitcom.

John Savident brings a fruity relish to the malevolent Magician; Michael Roberts milks the most genuinely witty lines as the Emperor, and John Rawnsley provides the afternoon’s real vocal heft as the Astrologer.

The score has its moments: ‘Come to the Supermarket in Old Peking’ is a fine example of a list song and Porter’s trademark witty world weariness is in evidence in the Emperor’s lament for freedom. The dreadful title song, however, is best forgotten.

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It couldn’t be more ridiculous and can’t begin to compare with Porter’s masterpieces, yet it manages to be consistently entertaining – thanks in no small part to the infectious enthusiasm that director Ian Marshall Fisher never fails to impart on the audience.

* Aladdin is at the Lilian Baylis Studio in Sadler’s Wells, Rosebery, until September 2.