My Fair Ah Lian

On first impression, Pygmalion the musical seems larger than life. Just look at it, for goodness sake. It’s humongous. The sets and costumes themselves are almost enough to make you go watch it. They’re certainly enough to make any performer wannabe (ie. me) drool, so kudos to Loo Jia Wei and Loh. The sheer novelty of such a large scale local production – big cast, musical ensemble, more than three musicians! – is, well… a novelty. To me, anyway. The last big musical I managed to catch was The Sound of Music ages ago, and then a few school productions in between. Thus, I was quite excited about watching this one. I’ve been hearing about it for ages, and gosh darnit, the posters are too cool. And hey, who can resist George Bernard Shaw?

Paul Loosely’s version of Shaw’s Pygmalion certainly has a few things going for it. The play, itself, is legendary of course. It’s got some really cool lines. (“Yes, you squashed cabbage leaf, you disgrace to the noble architecture of these columns, you incarnate insult to the English language, I could pass you off as the Queen of Sheba!”) Heh heh.

Musically, I find the orchestration very pleasant and no wonder – the names involved (Llewellyn Marsh, et al.) are, if not the cream of the crop, at least of the milkshake variety. Michelle Quah’s singing, although sometimes slightly iffy on the highest notes with regards to pitch, delivers a formidable lower register. Her crystalline soprano is one of the high points of the music in the play.

You can’t quite beat the stage presence of Harith Iskander, I suppose. He’s the largest thing onstage, besides perhaps the grand piano. Playing Professor Henry, I mean, Harun Higgins, he is also one of the few actors onstage able to deliver the right intensity at the right moments, as in the second act, during that famous argument between Michelle Quah’s Lisa (not Eliza) Doolittle and Harun.

Sarah Shahrum’s Mrs Pearce is fun. It’s fascinating to watch the babe in fishnets telling Harun that he can’t simply take strange girls into her home while obviously checking him out. I wonder if they are trying to say something with her somewhat contradictory character. Indi Nadarajah is cool as expected.

The fivepiece chorus girls hold their harmonies well and produce some nice tones.

That’s it, though.

The chorus girls, harmonious as they may be, have trouble synchronising occasionally and their presence seem a little redundant at times. The costumes are pretty, but they neither add nor subtract from the play. Harith’s singing is not exactly that of Michael Ball’s and Indi could have been a lot cooler had his role been bigger.

I wonder if the cutesy approach to this play is the best one. Having read the text myself, I have the idea that it should at least be a little more satirical and counter-romantic, especially in the second act. Perhaps I am tired, but some of the jokes seem to have a ‘laugh at me, damn you!’ quality about them. Harith Iskander is a funny guy. That’s a given. Yet I couldn’t help but think that they were taking advantage of his ‘comedian’ status a little too often during the play.

Also, the characters’ development seems a little left behind, while the musical numbers are over developed. I don’t think that the switch is a wise one.

I must say I find the music a little anticlimactic. Some of the songs, though pleasant, seem unnecessary. I am perplexed, for example, at “Fishbone in the Jam”. Later on, I find out that it is from the original text. But when I think about the song further, I still don’t get it. I try hard not to compare the music to Lerner and Leowe. I keep thinking, “Yeah, it’s going to get better really soon,” but it never does. The added-on lyrics, although clever and entertaining in print, can’t quite measure up to the play’s dialogue, which I find myself enjoying more than the music. To me, this is almost a travesty. Still, I’m Shaw that the lyricist tried his best.

And I am simply not drawn into the story. I try to be, I really do. But I can’t. I fancy that I can see the actors ‘feeling it’. However, all the magic seems trapped in a bubble onstage, unable to make the connection to the audience. I especially notice this in Michelle, who is occasionally on the verge of tears while I am painfully… not. Like the songs, the story fizzles rather than pop.

Then there is the problem of the ‘Malaysianised’ text. Listening to women in those huge Vivienne Westwood-­inspired skirts going ‘lah’ and ‘curi’ and ‘aiyah’ on such a European set struck me as really out of place. The programme explains that this blend apparently celebrates the amorphous and totally mixed nature of our culture, which seems marketable and artistic, but it still sounds as unnatural as a mat salleh using ‘lah’. Lah. Also, I haven’t received the memo about the cockney “Boy a flahr of a pore gel guvna?” being replaced with the Sungei Wang “Eh… wan to buy flower a-not?”, so at first it is actually sort of bizarre and takes some getting used to.

To Malaysianise, or not to Malaysianise? I understand that it’s meant to make the play more accessible to the local audience. But is that really necessary? Isn’t that saying that the local audience won’t get it if the language isn’t adapted to our surroundings?

Oh, how we hate being told we’re unworldly!

Let’s take a moment to think about this. Pygmalion is about language as sign of class distinction. It’s about snobbery lah, and how ridiculous the whole ‘upper class’ mentality is. It makes us think, “Thank goodness I’m not like that.”

But aren’t we? I thought the pre-show “No handphones/ cameras/ etc. allowed” announcement, with Harith speaking in proper English and Michelle trying to be annoying with an Ah Lian accent, rather tasteless and condescending. Perhaps I am wincing because I really can’t stand the ugly Ah Lian sounds, and perhaps it is true that those of us who speak, read and write better English do think we are better than those who don’t. But it seems like that the play is actually inviting me to wince and laugh at those who “talk like that one… lah.” We must really think we’re better than everyone else. We really can’t help it.

Pygmalion goes on till Sun 30 Oct 2005 at KLPac-Pentas 1.


Cheryl Tan is taking her vocal examination from Trinity next month and her SPM next year. She dreams of being tall.

First Published: 20.10.2005 on Kakiseni

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