By Amir Hafizi
Urgh. For some reason, when the arts community decides to embark on a production that have frogs who dream of singing, they get all “cheesed out”. All that reservoir of cheesiness, all that pent-up corniness. Yes, that corny energy, unleashed upon the unsuspecting public. Just look at “Frogway” ‘s television spot — which, perhaps, pray to God, was done like it was because they only thought about it a few minutes before the cameras rolled. It featured almost the entire cast reminding people not to “frog-et about it”: “it” being the show’s dates, and “frog-et” the brie assault.
Yes. Frog-et. Oh. My. God.
Thankfully, “Frogway” — which runs at The Actors Studio @ BSC until September 2nd, 2007 — itself is not as bad as its TV spot. The music and lyrics, by Michael Veerapen and Marcel Nunis, were quite good. (And, with Saidah Rastam as the musical director, you can rest assured that at least the audio quality is the best you could expect of any performance in Malaysia. And some say beyond.) The songs all have a tinge of the 1970s and 1980s in them. Somewhere in the score is “Earth, Wind and Fire”; some funk, swing, jazz and whatever else, in an eclectic mix too precious to slap labels on.
The story, almost intentionally, was simple and fable-like. The anthropomorphic protagonist, Eddie Thaddeus Frog (“Akademi Fantasia” ‘s Vince Chong), is the son of Horatio Frog (Thor Kah Hoong), a conductor. Though he is a frog and is supposed to only croak, Eddie dreams of singing — a foolish notion, according to amphibian standards: frogs simply do not sing!
Adamant about his decision, however, Eddie leaves the pond where he was hatched and raised with his buddy Freddy the Toad (Ash Nair) and goes to the swamp, where all manner of creatures congregate.
Together, they find super-stardom, ushered in by Suzanna Stork (Elaine Daly) and Smiley the Snake (Harith Iskander, who also directs) — big talent agents with an agenda. Pretty soon, Eddie is invited to sing at Frogway, ditches his friends and starts getting hooked to the drinks and peculiar seeds supplied by the stork and the snake.
Back at the pond, everything is falling apart, and Horatio misses his son profoundly. The question: will Eddie get back in time to save the pond, or has he become too “swamped” with his career as a star?
Basically, it’s about a story of dreams and roots. Of how, when you are reaching for the stars, you aren’t supposed to forget the ground you’re standing on. Or something like that.
Heartstrings and Accents
For a musical with such a cheesy theme and an even cheesier TV spot, “Frogway” delivers just enough for a musical to get by.
They have some wonderful songs, sung by equally wonderful singers. Vince, in the lead as Eddie the Frog, can’t act for nuts in this musical — however, whenever he shut up and simply sang his heart out, the audience’s heartstrings got tugged; the man shows you why millions of people, tears in their eyes, voted for him in the first season of “Akademi Fantasia”. His performance of “Do What I Feel” truly delivered how he, the little frog from a small pond, hopes to make it big his way.
And Vince wasn’t the best singer in the show. Ina Fabregas (no relations to Cesc Fabregas, the Arsenal midfielder and still Real Madrid target) came all the way from the Philippines to wow us with her vocal prowess. And she did her country — where people take singing so seriously, Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” is banned in some karaoke centres to avoid the patrons from beating each other up over the proper way of delivering it -- proud.
Ina delivered swerving crosses and intelligent through-passes that spoke much of her training and vocal coaching. She scored many times in “Frogway”, garnering most of the audience’s applause as Helen the Fish, and as one of the Frogettes — backup singers in the vein of The Supremes; Diana Ross, yo!
Ina’s 14-year-old sister Marielle and singer-songwriter Chelsia Ng are the Frogettes’ other two members — excellent voices all. Chelsia, in particular, was the surprise of the show. (People who have not followed the developments of Malaysian music, bothered to read her interviews, or have not bought “Frogway” programme book, will not previously know that this Penang-ite has recorded an album before: “Empty Decorations”, the title song of which was the theme for television series “Kopitiam”.)
And singing was not the only talent she displayed on stage. Chelsia managed to understand and carry her character well, giving some extra dimension to an otherwise filler role. She affected a faux Japanese accent, and got it 99 per cent correct, uttering lines like: “Zat isu notto mai ne-mu.” (“That is not my name.”)
This worked, endearing her to the audience; her solo was well received. What can one say other than: “Ore no neko wa handsamuda.” (My cat is handsome.)
Villains and Slackers
Speaking of supporting roles, the biggest of them all was that of Freddie the Toad, Eddie’s best friend and manager / band leader. To be a foil for Vince’s Eddie, the production turned to Ash Nair — a finalist from that other, arguably less-successful reality talent search thing, “Malaysian Idol”. The chemistry between the two was all right; unfortunately, it wasn’t all that good for two characters who are supposed to have grown up together as buddies. However, Ash gave a solid performance as the well-meaning slacker, leaf-guitar-playing toad, a character more Charlie from “Lost” than Toad of Toad Hall.
Which brings us to the two villains of the show: Suzanna Stork and Smiley the Snake. Elaine Daly’s Suzanna Stork was delightfully bird-brained and annoying, as all secondrate villains should be; she affected an accent that sounded like Cyndi Lauper — or Sheila Majid — with her tongue accidentally electrocuted with a cattle prod. A good thing, by the way; good villains should have the ability scare or annoy you, only using their voices. Look at Darth Vader, or Jar Jar Binks.
Harith Iskander’s snake, meanwhile, was all right; he was more menacing simply because the character itself has a predator’s brain and is not afraid to use it. For a few moments, Harith even sounded like Brain from “Pinky and the Brain” — a perfect foil to Elaine’s Pinky-esque character.
Both villains sang, in a manner, though their songs were more like slow-rap, rather than the vocal acrobatics the rest of cast were doing.
Kids and Adults
“Frogway” ‘s singers can sing, and its actors can act. And, while none of them could do both perfectly — it takes a rare breed of performer to pull off both disciplines properly -- the entire cast complemented each other, and the result was a competent show.
All in all, it’s a safe bet — tentative musical-goers won’t have wasted an evening. “Frogway” delivers to multiple levels, so kids (who are enjoying their school holidays now) might appreciate the costume and the pantomime-like nature of the show’s anthropomorphic animals. Meanwhile, adults can enjoy the singing, the music, and a story of roots and dreams — and that oh-so-subtle message of how everyone should strive for their dreams but must never forget where they come from.
Well, it beats watching “High School Musical” repeats on the Disney Channel.
First Published: 27.08.2007 on Kakiseni