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Don’t Cry For Me, Malaysia

  • October 13, 2005

By Maya Tan Abdullah

What makes a Malaysian musical Malaysian?

  1. It’s written by a Malaysian even though it could be about a bunch of Italians
  2. It’s set in Malaysia with Malaysian characters and traditional Malaysian music
  3. It’s a musical from somewhere else but wholly performed by Malaysians
  4. It’s written by a foreigner but is about Malaysia and is performed by Malaysians
  5. Malaysia got musical meh?

When Chee Sek Thim told me about his intention to stage a show highlighting songs from Malaysian musicals, my antennas shot up and emitted a buzz. We’ve had our share of Malaysian musicals, but never has it been such a buzzword as it is now. With Paul Loosely’s adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion opening next week with a star-studded cast, and two more high-profile Malaysian musicals slated for the coming year – M! The Opera and Puteri Gunung Ledang – The Musical – what better time to revisit what Malaysian musicals have offered up till now?

I must admit, I did wonder whether we had enough musicals to garner a show like Encore, (presented by Five Arts Centre, Thu 6 – Sun 16 Oct 2005. KLPac – Pentas 2), and the answer, of course, is yes. As Malaysian musicals are few and far in between, we tend to forget their existence. And other than Opera Uda dan Dara, of which I was a part, I did not have the privilege of watching any of the selected musicals when they were first staged.

A designer catwalk show

In a sentence, I will say this: Encore is a slick production. If it were a designer catwalk show, it would be Emporio Armani in physicality but Christian Lacroix in musicality. The set and performers may be dressed in subtle shades of black and grey, but the music and the voices explode with colour.

In fact, the minimalist set and the minimalist lighting instantly becomes the perfect blank canvas – as the performers weave in and out seamlessly of song, action and narrative, I find myself closing my eyes to imagine scenes and situations – but not for long because the performers are hugely watchable, immensely likeable, and rather good-looking.

Ida Mariana dazzles the audience with her silvery-voice and sensuality, while Sukania Venugopal delivers power-packed performances with multi-lingual prowess. Tony Eusoff, with his visibly vibrating diaphragm and silky voice should definitely be in more musicals, while Alex Koh has a voice with the strength, depth and clarity of an 8-foot giant. I want to see and hear more of Shanon Shah, who is tucked behind the piano, playing and singing soulfully, often slam-dunking the high registers, and feeling the music so much I can see it in his eyebrows. Finally, director Chee Sek Thim’s trained body and voice take to both the dramatic and the comic with ease, singing with much truth. As a group, the Encore team sounds stronger and fuller than one would expect from a 6-strong company.

However, that the performers be technically proficient is a given. The sparkling difference with Encore is that the songs are performed by actors who have the art of song down pat, and the actors’ delivery of the songs makes the show all the more incredible.

The one thing that dampens the effort of the performers, however, is perhaps that some of the movements in the show seem superfluous, and sometimes detract from the delivery of the songs. For example, in the first two numbers from The Reluctant Saint, I feel the movements and dramatisation was a tad comical, bordering on cringe-worthy. Because the movement also affected the performers, the result is that once in a while, someone fails to carry an emotion through, bringing about a halt in the suspension of disbelief.

Since the songs are mostly excerpts and not always sung in entirety, there are a few awkward moments where the audience is unaware that a song has ended, not knowing when to applaud. Perhaps this could have been better addressed by the lighting.

But there are still many magical moments, especially in the still, quiet times when an actor speaks to the audience through a song, so much so that one forgets the actor is singing. Sukania Venugopal’s delivery of an aria from Chin San Sooi’s Oh Brickfields!, about a woman whose husband is about to take a second wife, is devastating. Another sizzling moment is Ida and Suki’s performance of a duet taken from Usman Awang’s Opera Uda Dan Dara featuring two mothers having a polite altercation, where the poetic lines are laced with political strife and class snobbery. As I watch Ida perform the part of the Chinese mother, the part which I played in the original production, I am actually amazed that the emotional journey she portrays is so much similar to mine. It is almost as if we were directed by the same person [It’s hard to escape the spirit of Krishen – Ed.]. After the show, we both have a little laugh about hitting those high notes, (what Ida refers to as “shit notes”) and Ida confesses that this is the first time she is performing notes in that register.

And then, there are also moments, as one would expect, where the music, the solo piano with Shanon Shah, steals the scene.

Not only Malaysian, but global

Songs from Charlene Rajendran’s The Reluctant Saint, composed by Gerald Toh, bear the stamp of a West­ End/Broadway musical; rather impressive I have to say. And the subject matter – St Alphonsus Liguori’s journey to priesthood – makes this musical not only Malaysian but global. The natural progression is for a Malaysian to write about things Malaysian – but there is perfectly no reason for it to be limited as such. Why shouldn’t a musical written by a Malaysian be about something or someone other than a Malaysian?

The two songs from Chin San Sooi’s Reunion, composed by Johan Othman smacks of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s signature sentimental pop – pretty to the ears, and well-delivered by the performers, but somehow lacking in substance and originality. Ho Lin Huay’s Siddartha and Above Full Moon, both composed by Imee Ooi, feature the pretty refrains of contemporary Manda-pop. In terms of individuality, however, there isn’t much to speak of as one song blends into another indistinguishably. (Kudos to Tony, Suki and Ida for singing so convincingly in Mandarin).

The one song from San Sooi’s Oh Brickfields! (also composed by Johan Othman), a dark aria, clearly communicates the character’s despair and solitude. Though it sometimes feels like the music had to try and fit in all the words, Suki’s stellar performance makes it one of the highlights of the evening nonetheless.

Huzir Sulaiman’s Hip Hopera (composed by Hari ‘Haze’ Krish Menon) has more of a 90’s chillout sound than hip hop. ‘Donno Don Tok’, as always, is a favourite with audiences, and I’d rather take Ida’s sultry-soulful rendition of ‘Love Goes’, strongly supported by the rest of the company, anytime over the badly mastered recording on the Hip Hopera soundtrack CD, which I regretfully bought at the box office. (No offence to Paula). The upbeat rap number ‘We Got The Beat’ sounds rather empty without a beat box, and the voices, not balanced, are mostly drowned by the piano.

Which leaves me with my three favourite composers.

I’m biased when it comes to Opera Uda Dan Dara so I won’t say much except that I’m glad Sek Thim decided to include songs from this production featuring Adrian Lee and Sunetra Fernando’s wonderful fusion sound combining Malay and Chinese influences.

Saidah Rastam’s unique brand of music is in a genre all her own – what I will boldly refer to as Jazz Melayu, and even that would be limiting her diversity and prowess as a composer. Songs from Jit Murad’s The Storyteller has some fantastic four-part harmonies and jazz sensibilities, always infused with strong Malay roots, while ‘Cun-Kan Aku?’ from the upcoming M! The Opera was part jazz, part P. Ramlee, part Jit Murad, and all-genius.

On the whole, I believe Sek Thim’s selections are multifarious and certainly muhibbah, albeit the styles are more contemporary, with many (apart from the Chinese musicals} originating from the English-speaking theatre community. But as he mentions in his director’s notes, this is only the tip of the iceberg and there are tons of untapped musicals of the Istana Budaya variety and beyond which we have to consider. Based on Encore alone I am proud to say that Malaysia has some kick-ass musicals and to Sek Thim and his team, I have to say, “Another Encore“?

Encore runs till Sun 16 Oct, 2005 at KLPac – Pentas 2. 


Maya Tan Abdullah is an actor-singer-writer.

First Published: 13.10.2005 on Kakiseni