It's Panto Season in Britain, Baywatch-Style

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Anthony Luvera

Pamela Anderson as the genie in Aladdin at London's New Wimbledon Theatre

For Pamela Anderson, the weight of expectation must seem pretty light. After all, the former Baywatch star has been heralded more for her infamous sex tape with ex-husband Tommy Lee than for her acting ability. Perhaps that's why, starring as the genie in the Christmas pantomime of Aladdin at London's New Wimbledon Theatre, she comes off so carefree and jubilant and manages to upstage a cast of two dozen actors and dancers, some of whom obviously have far more stage experience than her. "I'm here to serve you, Master," she says to an awestruck Aladdin after she descends to the stage on a glittery surfboard, wearing a bejeweled red leotard. "You now own the most powerful — and most downloaded — genie in the world."

To those living outside Britain, the pantomime (or panto for short) can seem like a bizarre, and perhaps inappropriate, Christmas tradition. In the shows, theater companies take popular children's stories such as Aladdin, Cinderella and Snow White and spice them up with audience participation, cross-dressing, double entendres, sexual innuendo and deliberately hammy acting. Big stars have become a staple of the most lucrative shows in recent years — Henry Winkler, a.k.a. the Fonz, is currently starring as Captain Hook in a pantomime of Peter Pan in Liverpool, following in the footsteps of actors like Steve Guttenberg and Mickey Rooney. When done well, pantomimes draw huge crowds and revenue. When done poorly, they can do even better.

In Aladdin, the gags come thick and fast — and that's even before Anderson wiggles and writhes across the stage in black stockings and pink platform shoes, "singing" Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle." In an early scene, Widow Twankey, Aladdin's transvestite mother whose outlandish outfits rival those of Lady Gaga, recounts why she had to return her antiperspirant to the local pharmacy: "The instructions said, 'Take off top and push up bottom.' I can't be doing that all day!"

Despite such camp tomfoolery, Pammy's sense of comic timing helps her draw the biggest laughs. It doesn't hurt that Anderson, 42, who has publicly referred to her surgically enhanced breasts as "Pancho and Lefty," embraces her own absurdity. "I'm here to serve you — and run provocatively to you on the beach when the tide comes in," she says, referencing her most famous role of C.J. Parker in Baywatch. Later, during a group dance number, she bounces in one spot for three minutes, flexing her bottom to the beat. Her bosom undulates so much that you worry she'll wind up with two black eyes.

And while the former Playboy centerfold may not be witty herself — she's following a script, after all — she does inspire humor in others. "What is your wish, Master?" she says, kneeling before Aladdin. On opening night, a rather bawdy audience member shouted one suggestion (in a theater filled with children, mind you): "Get her to rub yer lamp!"

So why would Anderson, described in the program as "the most recognizable icon of the new millennium," subject herself to such public skewering on the other side of the Atlantic? On her website, she wrote that she took up the role because "it sounded fun." But the British tabloids have speculated that she's working to pay off the $1.2 million debt she reportedly owes to creditors and architects following the renovation of her Malibu home.

Ever the good sport, Anderson is able to dust off the slight and have the last laugh — a hallmark of a career in which she has overcome criticism for two leaked sex tapes, two high-profile divorces and 12 stints on the cover of Playboy. After Aladdin becomes wealthy in the show, she advises him to remain wary of supposed friends who seek to profit off his fortune. "Evil hands are everywhere, and they desire to get a hold of everything you own," she says, clutching her celebrated breasts. "They usually belong to people who work in the tax office — or construction."