Director Richard Rigg takes a slightly more adult approach to the pantomime genre than past Children’s Theatre productions, introducing the rather more sinister tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves to the Brisbane Arts Theatre stage. As this opening night performance was quick to prove, Rigg’s departure from the typical kiddy fare, increased complexity of story line and use of both explicit and implicit violence suggest that Ali Baba is a play intended and best suited for older children.
The plot comes first in this production, with little deviation from the traditional story. Poverty-stricken woodcutter Ali Baba (Darren Mearns) and his wife Selima (Davina Fowlie) find themselves constantly at odds with Ali’s wealthy brother Cassim (Peter Dakin) and wife Nella (Katherine Kiorgaard) until Ali comes across the secret treasure room of a band of thieves and steals some gold. Troubles naturally ensue, but with the help of Cassim’s slave girl Morgiana (Rebecca Todd), Ali and his family find happiness in the end.
Although some of the kids expressed dismay at the number of scene changeovers (“Oh no! Not again!”), the continuity of the story line was maintained throughout the show, the first half literally flew and apart from a short technical hiccup involving a delayed music cue, the action didn’t drag at all, and was over before the audience knew it.
Shane Daly’s musical score is first rate, perfectly suited to the Arabian theme of the play and one of the most outstanding features of the show. Good music combined with some amusing lyrics and competent dance routines, creating some particularly memorable ensemble song and dance numbers in both halves of the show. Colourful costuming and set design maintains the Arabian feel, as do the three belly dancing sequences included at intervals throughout the show.
As an ensemble the cast came across as well rehearsed and comfortable on stage, handling group song-and-dance numbers with confidence, led by dance captain Taneysha Toft, who demonstrated her own impressive talent during a belly-dancing sequence in the second half. Also impressive in the ensemble was Blake Young, playing two short-lived but highly effective scenes as the Apothecary and the Cobbler, and Peter Dakin, who handled the multiple roles of Cassim and the Bookkeeper with quiet competence.
Darren Mearns as Ali Baba, despite rushing through some of the jokes early on, proved himself to be well qualified for the lead role, demonstrating more than adequate acting ability and a pleasant singing voice. Davina Fowlie seemed uncomfortable in her role as Ali’s hen-pecking wife Selima, as a result seeming to drop in and out of character throughout the first three-quarters of the play, although whether this was a casting issue or merely a confidence issue is uncertain.
The standout performance of the play came from Rebecca Todd, who gained an instant rapport with the young audience in her turn as Morgiana, the slave girl. Apart from displaying a remarkable singing voice and talent for dance, Todd demonstrated with ease her ability to handle both comic and romantic roles in the play.
Despite the presence of a pantomime donkey, Ali Baba is not exactly a typical Children’s Theatre show. The death of two characters, the rather morbid notion of sewing one of them back together again, and an almost complete lack of audience participation means Ali Babamay not really be suitable for younger children. Still, for the older ones, parents should find the kids won’t be easily bored with this show. And Ali Baba certainly doesn’t contain the usual innocence and joie de vivre of other Children’s Theatre plays, as far as keeping the audience entertained is concerned, it still seems to work.
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