Review: P. Ramlee – The Musical

On the last day of the 2015 Georgetown Festival, a friend showed up at my door thirty minutes before showtime and said there was a free ticket to “P Ramlee: The Musical,” and did I want to go? Okay.

The musical is in Malay, which I don’t speak, but undeterred I went to discover what this musical was all about. I knew the name P Ramlee as the most well-known singer/actor in Malaysian history, but I knew little else. Open mind – let me explore the unknown.

The verdict: two enthusiastic thumbs up!

Wow! I mean what a great show, and, yes, I didn’t understand the language, except for small excerpts in English, but I thoroughly enjoyed everything.

P Ramlee is perhaps what Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley are to the United States – the star of his generation. A talented, fledgling singer from Penang, is enticed by making it big in Singapore by a talent-scout who invites him to the Shaw Brothers Studio. He arrives in Singapore, making it rich through his singing, acting, and finally directing. He makes countless films and becomes the celebrity for the entire generation of Malaysians.

The musical follows his travels to Singapore and his exploits in becoming a famous film star. But the real story, and where the show sizzles, is in regards to his rocky relationship with his three wives.

The story, as a non-Malay speaker, was easy to follow, but it was the sets, acting, music and choreography which keep me enthralled. The acting was superb, especially P Ramlee’s three wives – simply wonderful to watch!

The set was fantastic – powered by three massive LED boards which brought vibrancy and life to the various scenes. The timing was flawless, and the pace was brisk, never allowing a dull moment to set upon the crowd. I was fortunate to be sitting in the second row and had a clear view of the drummer and keyboardist, along with the other band members, who punched out the perky songs with gusto and passion. It was a delight to watch them. I greatly enjoyed the choreography and dancing which added wonderful energy to the performance.

This was a treat for Malaysia, and I can clearly understand why this show which debuted in KL back in 2007, and which is now on tour, has been such a hit! This is high-quality, big-budget production which doesn’t come through Penang very often.

The show is hitting the road and stopping in Johor Bahru and Malacca before ending this mini-tour. Do yourself a favor and go see it! Bring your kids and let them sit in awe to give them a sample of what live theatre can do. It’s something that cinemas will never be able to match.

Here’s a few photos of the production:

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Theatre Review: Slow Sound of Snow

I was able to catch the Iranian drama troupe perform the experimental dramatic piece “Slow Sound of Snow” as part of the 2016 Georgetown Festival.

The story (if you call it that) takes place in a small shack with a slanted floor, huddled underneath a treacherous mountain cliff which is in danger of producing an avalanche. Any loud noise might be enough to set if off. During this particular winter, a pregnant woman has to give birth and the husband, along with his mother and grandfather, have to weigh the pros and cons and figure out what to do since having a crying newborn would threaten their actual existence.

It’s a scenario and setting which has enough meat on its bones to produce an engaging story. However, the execution of this piece was lacking. But before I break it down, that statement isn’t exactly true. I have no doubt of the talent of the actors. The concentration that they had to display was considerable. I also don’t doubt the talent of the director, who was good at emphasizing small details.

The problem I had with this piece is the same problem I have with so many other modern theatre pieces – they simply do not engage the audience in good storytelling.

The “Slow Sound of Snow” is much more of an actor’s exercise rather than an enjoyable night out at the theatre.

So this review is all about the genre that so many modern playwrights and directors decide to plop themselves into. This performance made me think of this post that I had rather recently re-posted because the same topics keep coming up again and again. People are hungry for stories, and modern theatre hasn’t done a good job of providing engaging and entertaining stories. Television has really become the place to tell stories. Look up what Kevin Spacey said about stories when he started his connection with Netflix. Theatre has so much potential to bring entertainment and exhilaration to live audiences, but I rarely experience that, even though I’m a regular theatre go-er.

This show was literally and incredibly slow moving. It was purposely written that way. The first 20 minutes of the show literally nothing happened. Hardly anything was said. It was a series of minimal movements. And yes, I got the situation after the first two minutes, I didn’t need to see another 15 minutes before anything remotely engaging happened.

As I said before, this was an exercise for actors. A good one at that. Impressive concentration and an interesting set. (Though the wolf was a little bizarre.)

If you are in to the strange style of modern experimental theatre then I recommend seeing “The Slow Sound of Snow” when it comes through your part of the world. It has garnered a lot of awards.

If you like theatre for strong storytelling, engaging characters, and an enjoyable night out on the town, you may want to skip this one.

Theatre Review: Albee’s “At the Zoo” by Theatrethreesixty

Edward Albee’s “At the Zoo” was the first play written by the man who has become one of America’s most important playwrights. Theatrethreesixty’s production of the play is a powerful and gripping look at the animal nature in all of us sitting comfortably beneath our skin.

This one-act story revolves around the meeting of strangers in Central Park and ends when transient and slightly deranged Jerry entices the well-off, upper east side married man Peter to the brink of depravity, ending in, well … sorry, no spoilers.

This production, part of the 2014 Georgetown Festival, is minimalistic at its core. Director Christopher Ling creates a simple design and uses a light hand, allowing the dialogue and the terrific performances by Matthew Ong and Azzad Mahdzir to say all that there is to be said. Mahadzir shines, especially with this being his first major role. The intensity displayed was gripping, and it brought home plenty of themes for the audience to think about – which any self-respecting drama is expected to do!

The opening act, “At Home”, written as a sort of prequel to “At the Zoo” by Albee more than four decades after the zoo’s debut, also has solid performances, especially by Rosheen Fatima who plays the wife looking for a little spark in her marriage with Peter. But, without a doubt, “At the Zoo” is the star of the show.

The unfortunate aspect of this production is the facility. I’m not sure if it was the Georgetown Festival which arranged the room at Whiteaway’s Arcade or if it was through a different arrangement, but it is not a room conducive to drama – even intimate drama. The echoes were horrendous, making it difficult to understand an actor who was no more than 10 feet away. I especially would have liked to have seen this production in a proper black-box setting.

But despite the difficulties, I recommend it to anyone who likes hard-hitting drama or who wants to see one of the plays which ushered in the absurdist genre into the modern era.

It’s playing through August 31 at Whiteaway’s Arcade in Georgetown.

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Review of “Best of”: Insightful Cultural Night

I had the opportunity to catch “Best of” at PenangPAC on Friday night – one of only 2 performances as part of the Georgetown Festival.

Siti Khalijah Zainal put on an entertaining and enlightening one hour, one-woman show, part comedy, part poignant drama, which highlighted the life of a Malay living as a minority in the Chinese dominated island nation of Singapore.  She touched upon many hot topics like Muslim divorce and sharia law, ethnic stereotyping, foreign workers, family, and love.

The best part of the writing and performance was when she highlighted the difference in cultural values between the Malay and other ethnic heritages, namely the Chinese. She provided an insightful look at the the differences that become obvious if one lives in Malaysia or Singapore for any length of time. The Malay are offered stereotyped as being “lazy” while the Chinese as the driving force of the economy – pushing their children into prestigious careers in medicine, law, business, etc…

She drilled home the point well, saying that the Malay are not lazy in things which are important to them. She said how she doesn’t want to work overtime and climb the corporate ladder because that is not who she is. Her values revolve around family and living life to its fullest. She said just because the Malay don’t have the same cultural values doesn’t mean that their values are any less valid. In fact, in this busy day and age, her message resonated with clarity and should have made anyone think through one’s life priorities.

I enjoyed her performance and how she added a lot of good fodder to the on-going dialogue about important cultural issues which are very prominent in this part of the world. If you get a chance to see “Best of”, I recommend it.