By CH Loh
Twenty years ago in a small basement room in a school in Singapore there was a piano, and on weekends a secret gathering took place around it. Young aspiring divas would convene and live out their dreams of stardom, emulating their favourite Broadway heroines belting out show tunes with attitude and imaginary feather boas and bosoms. It was my first education in the genre. Willkommen, Bienvenue, Welcome! Money makes the world go round… I had the rare privilege to witness this covert extravaganza if only because I had made the piano my home away from home and would not be removed from its side. I did not actually play the piano — a young medical student did all the work, and one might say I was the audience of one.
I am always amazed at how life turns out — fast forward 20 years and I am hearing the very same songs on stage at Toy Factory’s sumptuous staging at the Esplanade Singapore, directed by Beatrice Chia-Richmond, and choreographed by the very same young diva from those days in the basement. For Zaini Tahir, Resident Choreographer of the NUS Dance Ensemble, dreams do come true. There is possibly hope for the rest of us.
Hope, however, is in short supply for the characters in this latest Toy Factory venture. The company has taken the 1987 Broadway revival of the famous musical Cabaret and strips off its glamour and glitz, exposing the dark heart of the story of a decadent world on the brink of World War II.
Set in 1930s Berlin at the threshold of the Nazi Party’s rise into power, Cabaret takes us into the heart of the city’s seedy nightlife, which unwittingly becomes the last post of resistance to a world collapsing into fascism. Here at the Kit Kat Klub, the infamous Emcee holds reign over his bevy of beauties and boys. China’s pop sensation Fei Xiang dons the mask of the Emcee as King of the Klub or Queen of the castle, take your pick. At the front of the club’s sizzling line-up is the mercurial Sally Bowles, played by Singapore’s feisty Emma Yong.
In Moulin Rouge fashion, struggling American journalist Cliff Bradshaw falls in love with Sally. Parallel to their doomed affair, his elderly landlady Fraulein Schneider finds a budding twilight romance with her tenant, the fruitseller Herr Schultz.
Together their affairs represent the two biggest obstacles to love — class and race. Cabaret asks if love can conquer all. The answer at the end of the musical is sadly definitive to this very day — you need look no further, just look at what happened to the film Gubra.
The Toy Factory team scores a real gem with their ravishing new production. The sets are as gorgeous as they are clever and slick, the cast is wonderfully engaging (so much so I zid not notice zat almost all of zee Germans verr actually Singaporeans), and the music is brilliantly executed.
From the dancing pineapples in “It Couldn’t Please Me More” to the naughty nuns in “Don’t Tell Mama” to the brilliantly choreographed “Money Song”, Cabaret takes a devil-may-care look at a serious subject and does it with style. It’s the sort of production that has potential to stay in the circuit for a long time.
Director Beatrice Chia-Richmond acknowledges the invaluable contribution of a trio of Malaysia’s brightest talents: music-director Saidah Rastam (“she has balls bigger than the moon”), bandleader Michael Veerapen (“a real treasure”) and lighting designer Mac Chan (no words, just oohs and aahs). “They really reached for the highest apples,” says Chia, echoing a line in the musical about always striving for the best despite the challenges (a concept often alien to our people, who have been told to reach for the lowest apples so that everyone can have a bite).
Notable are Saidah Rastam’s musical arrangements, which give the familiar score a slick 21st Century finish, stripping off the dusty Americana of the original and the leery Oktoberfest of the Fosse film version, for a more Kurt Weill grotesquery spiced with Rastam’s very own contemporary style. Michael Veerapen with the 9-piece band fashions a warm, flexible jazz combo sound that perfectly balances present day with 1930s Berlin, weaving a sound that is, in my view, superior to the sound of Sam Mendez’s 1998 revival.
Rastam adds her unique fingerprints to the music with her perky instrumentation and grungy feel, sneaking in plenty of contemporary touches such as the mischievously dissonant “Auld Lange Syne” during the New Year’s party and the dark, unnerving sonic landscape that accompanies the Emcee’s final monologue “I Don’t Care Much” (Hearts grow hard on a windy street, Lips grow cold with the rent to meet…).
Centrepiece to the music is her atonal sonic orgy that replaces the original Act 2 curtain raiser. And what a curtain raiser — a shadowplay of the Kit Kat Club’s most dubious activities unveils a grimacing, grotesque Kick Line that shatters the Moulin-Rouge romance of the first Act for the stark hopelessness of the second Act, as the horror of the 3rd Reich slowly winds its slimy fingers around the story.
There is plenty of humour still — Hitler gets to screw the world in a tutu in the Act 2 opener and some Malaysians will be pleased to see a Jew portrayed as a gorilla in “If You Could See Her Through My Eyes”. Cabaret hits hardest in its final moments when all illusion of glamour is consumed by the suffocating calm that precedes the Holocaust.
In the eye of this coming storm Beatrice turns the musical’s biggest tune Cabaret into a bitter soliloquy for Sally. With just a spotlight and a darkened set Emma Yong delivers her winning performance, a gutsy defiant anthem that is the very antithesis of the song that Liza Minelli had burned into our consciousness for nearly 30 years. It left the audience somewhat stunned. “I wanted to depict the disintegration of the world rather than showstopper, to highlight Sally’s emotional journey. World War II was coming, how can I have a chorus line?” says Chia-Richmond.
It’s a bold gamble but does it pay off? Only time will tell, but that Emma got a huge ovation for it may be an indication. Without the big finish Cabaret ends in a huge question mark, and the audience is shell-shocked as the lights fade on the Kit Kat Klub’s slow mutation into a Nazi haunt, the Emcee, off to prison, and Sally drifting off to the great boudoir in the sky. It’s a cruel dose of reality that perhaps the audience did not expect, but one that will surely stay in their minds for a long time.
We may not have gotten our big finish and left somewhat hungry, but Toy Factory’s Cabaret has given us plenty to chew on, and one might definitely return for second helpings. Who knows, the Kit Kat Klub may one day open its doors in holding-hands-not-allowed Malaysia, and hopefully, before we too fall to fascism.
CH Loh is a Malaysian writer based in Singapore.
First Published: 03.08.2006 on Kakiseni