Pantomime Season in Full Swing at Birmingham Royal Ballet

18/02/2013

 Davis, Aladdin: Birmingham Royal Ballet, Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Paul Murphy (conductor). Birmingham Hippodrome, 15.2.2013 (GR).

Principal Characters/Dancers:

Aladdin: César Morales
Princess Badr al-Budur: Nao Sakuma
The Mahgrib: Iain Mackay
The Djinn of the Lamp: Tzu-Chau Chou
Aladdin’s Mother: Marion Tait
The Sultan (Princess’s father): Jonathan Payn

Production:

Music: Carl Davis
Choreography : David Bintley
Sets: Dick Bird
Costumes: Sue Blane
Lighting: Mark Jonathan

What do Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin have in common? Not just pantomime! David Bintley, Director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, has the auspicious knack of adapting an endearing fairy tale into an engaging ballet. Last December I reviewed his Cinderella on this site and said the festive season had arrived in Birmingham. Two months later it is still here: Aladdin received its UK premiere on Feb 15th 2013 at the Birmingham Hippodrome. Bintley and BRB have another surefire winner of a show that runs at the Hippodrome until 23rd Feb before touring to Salford, Plymouth, Sunderland and the London Coliseum. The Aladdin story of a likeable young lad, an evil sorcerer, a magic lamp that can summon a wish-granting genie and a beautiful princess looking for a suitor, bears comparison with any folk story. Said by Bintley to be his least ‘deep’ ballet, his narrative was told with simplicity and broad appeal.

This was a ‘show’ and a half, with all the razzle-dazzle of a West End production – as much pantomime as classical ballet. Vital to the stunning overall visuals was the creative design team of Dick Bird (Sets), Mark Jonathan (Lighting) and Sue Blane (Costumes): both concept and detail were spectacular. Typical of Bird’s compositions was the opening scene, a bustling Chinese market place; the residents went about their business among the stalls and the fakirs, while Aladdin and his mischievous mates (John Barton and Mathias Dingman) amused themselves. After some well rehearsed interactive movements by the BRB corps de ballet our hero was caught, ‘rescued’ by the evil Mahgrib, journeying through a desert of sand dunes to ‘The Cave of Riches’ – another fantastic creation. Here the cave was lit by and array of stalactites and stalagmites, ingeniously powered by hundreds of LEDs, the brainchild of Jonathan. The ribcage detail adorning the staircase entry added just sufficient menace to Aladdin’s plight when he became imprisoned. The bathroom scene that opened Act II was an equally striking design of light, scenery and costume; the Princess and her attendants wore the flimsy white attire of Blane, although I got more of a Roman spa from the setting, rather than the story’s Persian/Chinese origins from One Thousand and One Nights.

The Djinn_ photo Richard Battye_ image design Lift Creative Services

The Djinn; photo Richard Battye; image design Lift Creative Services

The BRB special effects group had also worked overtime to come up with some magic of their own. The flashes and use of dry ice to introduce the Djinn were expertly timed and presented; the outfit devised by Blane for Tzu-Chau Chou was the perfect mix of mystery and imagination; at times the genie was as weightless as any space astronaut (see pic). After Aladdin had successfully rescued the Princess from the clutches of the Mahgrib and recovered the lamp, the ecstatic couple flew blissfully home on their magic carpet – a genuine coup de theatre. Two further examples of the extravaganza’s popular family appeal were the Lion’s Dance (China and BRB’s own version of the pantomime horse) and the glitzy traditional Chinese Dragon Streamer, typical of the numerous props that form part of the celebrations of the Act III finale. In addition to such exhibitionist displays the element of romance was suggested by the game of chess that opened Act III. Another plus was the seamless joining of the many scene changes by the efficient BRB stage management crew.

The Magic Carpet_ photo Richard Battye_ image design The Lift Creative Services (1)

The Magic Carpet; photo Richard Battye; image design The Lift Creative Services

First created by Bintley in 2008 for National Ballet of Japan, Bintley said there had not been any major reworking for Birmingham, although there were a few tweaks. Continuity came in the form of two dancers who helped create the original lead roles in Tokyo, Yudai Fukuoka and Ayako Ono; they are scheduled to appear in productions later on in the run. But for the UK premiere BRB chose resident Japanese principal Nao Sakuma as the Oriental Princess Badr al-Budur (Full Moon of Full Moons) with Chilean César Morales as Aladdin. They created their own brand of eastern promise and Arabian mystique, both individually and together in their several pas de deux. I particularly liked their contribution to the universally joyful finale. Elsewhere, Chou’s brilliant performance as the Djinn was everything you might expect from a genie of the lamp – wispy and as bouncy as a rubber ball (see pic). Iain Mackay brought his own brand of wickedness to the Mahgrib, while character specialist Marion Tait as Aladdin’s mother (a somewhat removed link to the traditional Widow Twankey role) was totally convincing in her maternal emotions of relief, concern and pleasure. Some of the best dancing came from the entertaining divertissements portraying the various jewels in the cave: the Emeralds of Jamie Bond, Laëtitia Lo Sardo and Angela Paul were green with the jealousy and passion they symbolized, while the quartet of Samara Downs, Victoria Marr, Fergus Campbell and Steven Montieff gave a sterling rendition of Gold and Silver.

Carl Davis had composed a score of Aladdin for an unsuccessful production for Scottish Ballet in 2001, and Bintley claims it was this that inspired the ideas that culminated in his great 2013 version. I thought the score had its moments, although for the most part the ensemble work was basically background material, my eyes were much busier than the ears. Davis provided a few notable solo parts: the oboe support in Sapphire, the trumpets that accompanied the Emeralds, and the horns heralding the hunting scene of Act III. However I thought there was too little malice in the backing for the Mahgrib. Davis also included a catchy love motif that appeared at appropriate moments, but its similarity to a number attributed to Nigel Hess made me wonder. The Royal Ballet Sinfonia under the baton of Paul Murphy and leadership of Robert Gibbs took it all in their stride as usual.

This was family entertainment of the highest calibre!

Geoff Read

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