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“881” The Musical…Getai Meets Musical Theatre

April 20, 2011
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Event: 881 – The Musical (by Toy Factory Productions)
Venue: Esplanade Theatre
Run: 15th Apr – 1st May 2011

Chinese Theatre’s Answer to “Fried Rice Paradise”

The boisterous and colourful world of Getai arrives at the Esplande Theatre in the form of “881 The Musical”, the highly-anticipated theatrical adaptation of the wildly succesful Royston Tan movie from 2007.

Many thanks to Goh Boon Teck and the rest of his team at Toy Factory for bringing us the second grand-scale Mandarin musical in as many years, following the success of last year’s “December Rains”.

If there was a local movie in the past five years that was most suited for translation onto the musical theatre stage, then “881” would definitely have been it.

It was a no-brainer, because one can already imagine the myriad of possibilities available in tackling a story about friendship, loyalty, and love…amidst the backdrop of the Getai world.

First off, I have to state that I’d not seen the Royston Tan movie before, so I am unable to comment on how the musical differs from the movie.

Which is just as well, since it was never my intention to make this a point-by-point comparison between film and musical.

I would rather just view the musical as an entity on its own.

Music

There were 5 brand new original songs written for “881 The Musical”, though it is quite evident that the one song which truly stood out was “One Half (一人一半)”, which was the theme song from the film itself.

And such was the strength of the song that it was reprised incessantly throughout the musical.

Even the 4-note motif of the opening notes was enough to rouse up one’s emotions in a way that few other songs in the musical could.

The musical also featured the use of a few classic Hokkien hits, and there was even a rendition of Teresa Teng’s “何日君再来” at one point.

Costumes

I am not sure what the entire budget for “881 The Musical” was, but it seems to me like no expense was spared on the sets and props.

And oh, the costumes!

In keeping with the spirit of all that is loud, glitzy and ostentatious about Getai, this musical boasts of some of the most impressive costumes ever seen on a Singapore stage.

The costumes were so amazing that the audience instinctively broke into applause not once, but twice, at two distinct points during the show, in appreciation of the spectacular sights they were treated to.

(Life! Theatre Awards judges might want to just pen down the names “Saksit Pisalasupongs” and “Phisit Jongnarangsin” as outright winners of “Best Costume Design” for next year’s awards, because it’s hard to see how their efforts in “881” could be topped.)

Cast

“881 The Musical” is noteworthy for a number of reasons, one of which is that this is Judee Tan’s first lead role in a major theatrical production.

Those who had seen her in the “Chestnuts” series, “Broadway 4 Suakus”, and even “The Hossan Leong Show 2” would be aware of her immense talent, especially as a comic genius, and it is gratifying to see that she has finally had her well-deserved big break, headlining a major musical.

I thought Judee put in a commendable performance, but to those who’ve seen her command an audience like no other in her previous stage appearances, it felt as if she was capable of much more.

Joanna Dong plays the role of Min Min, sworn sister to Judee’s Yan Yan, in what is basically a reprise of her “Joey Tan” character in the recent movie “Forever”, minus the psychosis.

Joanna seems to have had the art of playing the role of sweet, doe-eyed, Miss Goody-Two-Shoes down to a tee.

Both Judee and Joanna sang remarkably well, and while it must be said that both of them look uncannily alike, especially in the photographs, that is about as far as it goes…because it didn’t feel to me like that was a whole lot of chemistry going on between the two of them.

For some reason, the pairing just didn’t feel quite right.

Perhaps it might have been because their characters were too similar.

I wondered if Judee should have played up her character a bit more, making it a bit more rough around the edges, to contrast with Joanna’s saintly character.

Sebastian Tan, playing “Lu” of the Fu-Lu-Shou trio, was easily the crowd favourite thanks to his comic delivery and great tenor voice.

I personally thought that Dennis Chew put in one of the strongest performances, even though his role of Duah Gee was pretty much a one-dimensional one with little room for development.

He showed great acting chops, and had a good voice to boot as well.

Oh, and I loved the whole MJ impersonation thing as well.

Subtle, but well-received.

Issues

There were a few issues I had with the musical that I would like to point out.

Firstly, how did a span of two years just flash by under our noses just like that?

I think the idea of two years having elasped between the moment the Papaya Sisters started becoming successful and the moment the Durian Sisters started to appear was lost on most of us in the audience.

I’m sure it’s not just me who was pondering over this, as I also overheard the folks behind me asking this very same question during the intermission.

Secondly, it seemed to me that though the musical provided plenty of visual stimulation, it needed more work in terms of developing the relationships between the characters.

For example, the love triangle between the two sisters and Guan Ying could have been fleshed out more vividly, so that we would have felt much more sadness at the end when Joanna leaves Guan Ying to Judee.

Also, the musical could have shown how the two sisters stuck with each other through thick and thin, forming the tightest of bonds, thus allowing us to empathise even more greatly with their sad scenario at the end.

There could also perhaps have been a song expressing why Getai meant so much to both Judee and Joanna, so that we could better appreciate why they are putting their life’s devotion into the artform.

Thirdly, I thought the musical’s dramatic arc peaked too early, which caused the remaining 20-30 mins of the show to feel somewhat sluggish, as it never did manage to scale the same heights once again.

The high point of the show was undoubtedly the Getai “showdown” midway through the second act between the Papaya and Durian Sisters, where one pair continually one-upped the other by emerging with wildly-extravagant costumes and dances, resulting in the climax of the show, where the audience couldn’t help but applaud with vigour.

That was the absolute high point of the show, which sadly came about 20-30 mins before the ending.

Fourthly, the main thrust of the story seemed unclear.

Was it a pair of sisters’ quest to become successful in the world of Getai?

Was it the fight against their biggest nemesis – the Durian Sisters?

Or was it about losing and cherishing our loved ones?

It seemed unclear at various points in the show, and one wasn’t exactly sure which thrust the story was ultimately trying to bring out.

The Chinese Version of “Fried Rice Paradise”?

Comparisons with last year’s “Fried Rice Paradise” inevitably started to creep into my mind the moment I saw how the set and the stylised characters in the first scene resembled the street set in “Fried Rice Paradise”.

And thus I found it hard to shake off the nagging suspicion that “881” might just be the Chinese equivalent to “Fried Rice Paradise”, until the moment the Durian Sisters started squirting soya milk(?) out of their chests…which confirmed everything.

What I mean is that like FRP, “881” panders to the tastes and sensibilities of the masses, and this means that the lines and gags in the show aren’t always done with the utmost taste.

Plus the fact that many of the characters (apart from the leads) were largely one-dimensional stock characters, e.g. Duah Gee, the Durian Sisters, 800, etc.

But one thing I’ll say for “881” is that like FRP, I know for a fact that it has managed to attract people to the Esplanade Theatre who would never have visited the Esplanade, and who would never have watched a musical if not for it.

I’ll cite you an example: On my way out of the Esplanade Theatre last night, I bumped into some distant relatives whom I’d never expected to see in the Esplanade Theatre watching musical theatre…not in a million years.

Such is the pulling power of “881 The Musical”, and you’d have to give Goh Boon Teck and Toy Factory all the credit in the world for staging such a colourful, entertaining and accessible extravanganza that brings the disparate elements of Getai, musical theatre, and non-theatre-going-folk all together under the same roof of the Esplanade Theatre in a way that was previously unimaginable.

And as such, “881 The Musical” deserves high praise.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Ilkosa permalink
    April 20, 2011 8:30 am

    I felt “881” was more engaging emotionally than FRP, with more character development for the main characters.

    Eh…I think the show is about sisterhood & loyalty.

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