Jumaat, 20 September 2013

The Star Online: Lifestyle: Arts & Fashion

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Arts & Fashion

Foxy family fun


Fine actors breathe life into Roald Dahl's beloved book, Fantastic Mr Fox.

The question I was left with after revelling in the recent staging of Fantastic Mr Fox at PJ Live Arts was, how do I give the play an unbiased review? For after giggling and bobbing my head through the lively adaptation of Roald Dahl's beloved book, the only lingering feelings I walked away with were those of delight and amusement – hardly conducive to nitpicking on niggling details!

The production, adapted for the stage by Britain's Sir David Wood, and presented locally by Box Of Delights, is pitched as entertainment for the whole family, and not only does it amuse both old and young, it comes with the added bonus of making the old (ahem!) actually feel young!

The play hews very closely to the original book, telling the tale of the wily and dapper Mr Fox, who is the bane of three reprehensible farmers called Boggis, Bunce and Bean, as he steals fowl from their farms to feed his family. When the three band together to destroy Mr Fox and his home once and for all, it takes all his cunning to come up with a way to not only outwit the farmers, but keep his family well-fed and safe from harm.

Directed by Marvin Wong with Ghafir Akbar serving as mentor, the production is suffused with the kind of energy worthy of Dahl's story, thanks to the many creative storytelling devices employed. While the animals are all played with ample spirit by actors, Boggis, Bunce and Bean – one fat, one short, one lean – are puppets manipulated by cast members, an inspired and often hilarious touch. There are also infectious songs, frenzied activity, and physical comedy aplenty to keep us riveted, complemented by perfectly-timed cartoon visuals projected onto the background.

These are enhanced by the inventive set design by Fang Chyi Chang, where simple wooden crates transform into both underground burrows and house cellars with a little creative tweaking, and litle homey touches give a cosy feel. Costumes by Dominique Devorsine and makeup by Cindy Hor further perfectly evoke the English countryside.

Sukania Venugopal gave a superb performance as Mr Fox's friend, Badger

Sukania Venugopal gave a superb performance as Mr Fox's friend, Badger.

Of the cast, Sukania Venugopal is simply superb as Badger, who is not only Mr Fox's friend, but serves as the play's narrator as well. Her marvellously expressive portrayal and energetic body language almost steal every scene she's in. Playing the titular character is Na'a Murad, who takes a rather unexpected approach: his Mr Fox here is less a shrewd trickster than he is a calm, kindly family man, and while he doesn't always take centrestage, Na'a's warm, fatherly portrayal is very endearing.

Other standout performers include Tria Aziz, who not only puppets and voices Bean, but plays Weasel as well as Mabel, a crotchety old housekeeper, and does it all brilliantly. Jerrica Lai, too, is really charming as Mrs Fox, particularly in the way she really got the "foxy" mannerisms down pat. The three young cast members, who play the Fox children – Arjun Kang, Caleb Fong and Toby Ann Ujhazy – meanwhile, seem like they're having a ball of time.

The one grouse I have with the play is that it doesn't quite deliver on the darker subtexts of Dahl's story, such as the divide between the haves and have-nots, the questionable ethics of stealing to survive, and the struggle between nature and development.

Admittedly, it may be a bit much to expect such commentary in a production that aims to cater to all ages, but the fact that Dahl's book manages to weave it into a children's story shows that it can be done.

But honestly, these were thoughts that came to mind only later. Walking out of the play, the only thought in my mind was that I wanted to traipse about and loudly sing, to quote the rousing finale song: "Some cider inside her inside!"

More than hair in <i>Hairspray</i>


There are bigger things to rave about than the hair in Hairspray The Broadway Musical.

EVER had a dream where everything was so colourful and full of life, and you didn't want to wake up? Beautiful women with tall hairdos and immaculately dressed men walking down streets and filling the air with invigorating songs ... you cannot help but want to join in. You just can't stop the beat.

That was exactly what the audience experienced when Hairspray The Broadway Musical premiered on Tuesday at the Plenary Hall, Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre.

For those who are unfamiliar with the musical, here is a little crash course.

Tracy Turnblad is a highly positive, plump teenager living in 1960s Baltimore in the United States and like any other teenager of that time, is obsessed with the local dance show, The Corny Collins Show.

Upon finding out about an audition to be part of the show, Tracy tries out, only to have her dreams crushed by producer Velma Von Tussle. She doesn't have the right size, Velma says. Secretly, Velma wants her daughter Amber, who is part of the show, to be the star. But with her determination, Tracy finally lands a spot on the show and uses her newfound fame to fight against racial discrimination.

Forrester dazzling the audience with her powerhouse vocals

Forrester dazzling the audience with her powerhouse vocals.

Leading the cast as Tracy is Katharine Moraz and you cannot help but fall in love with her bubbly, perky, larger-than-life personality. Moraz coloured the already colourful stage with her youthful vibrancy, girlish charisma and endearing voice.

One can go so far as to say Moraz did not play Tracy; she is Tracy! She commanded the stage from the very first number, the iconic Good Morning Baltimore.

Though nearly 20 ensemble members were dancing and singing around her, you just couldn't take your eyes off her. Moraz was simply captivating and a delight to watch.

But of course, that doesn't mean the ensemble were forgettable. They were far from that. They exuded so much energy and life on stage, the one and a million lights on stage had to compete for attention.

More than that, the chemistry they shared with one another was almost seamless and the way they supported the leads – as all good ensemble should – was an amazing sight. Every time they danced, one will be left with envy and probably an impetus to join a nearby gym.

If Moraz stole the show with her personality, Damian Williams, who plays Edna Turnblad, Tracy's oversized and loving mother, stole the show with his impeccable comedic timing.

He hit the punchlines with the precision of a bomb-disposal expert. Audiences roared with laughter every time Williams delivered his lines and were at the edge of their seats whenever he opened his mouth ... waiting for the next punch line. No one else but Williams could have elicited a wave of laughter when he said, "If you touch one single hair on Tracy, you will find out a whole new meaning to split ends!"

Now, you may be wondering, did you read that right? A guy is playing the mother's role? That has been a tradition for the musical throughout the world, for a male actor to play Edna Turnblad, made famous of course by John Travolta, who played Edna in the 2007 film adaptation of the musical.

Williams undergoes nearly an hour of makeup to become Edna! Plus, he has to wear all that padding underneath and be a wife and mother at the same time? No wonder they say it's difficult being a woman.

What is a musical without the singing?

It's like going for a buffet dinner without the buffet line. But the voice is a tricky thing, no matter how well trained you are. One note off-key and the purists will crucify you with the vengeance of the Greek gods. So, you can imagine the overwhelming weight of pressure on the casts' shoulders each time they sing.

But the cast of Hairspray, especially the principal cast, exhibited strong vocals. A special shout-out to Irene Myrtle Forrester who plays Motormouth Maybelle. Her rendition of I Know Where I've Been will at once transport you to a time where jazz, blues and gospel music thrived. Her angelic voice will tug at your heartstrings and send shivers up your spine ... in a good way. Forrester was in a league of her own.

Not enough: Tracy spraying some hairspray for that firm and big hair-do

Not enough: Tracy spraying some hairspray for that firm and big hair-do.

However, nothing is perfect in this life. Even the greatest musicals in the world have their own share of flaws, no matter how minute they may be. Though Williams was charismatic and charming and extremely funny as Edna, he lacked the groove and magic of John Travolta during the Can't Stop The Beat number.

Of course, it is an unfair comparison — who can compare with John Travolta? But the point is, perhaps Williams could have enjoyed himself a bit more and allowed his body to move with the music. Vocally, Adam Bernard, who plays Seaweed, was not as strong as the rest. He hit the high notes, but it was not as strong and grounded. His falsettos, however, were amazing.

Fans of the 2007 Hairspray film are in for some surprises. This writer himself was surprised with some of the notable changes in the stage musical. For one, the seduction scene between Velma and Tracy's father, Wilbur, was not in the musical. Even as the audiences were walking away after the show ended, one person commented to her partner that she was actually waiting for that scene.

Another big scene that was nowhere to be seen was the crowning of Little Inez (Seaweed's younger sister), not Tracy, as Miss Teenage Hairspray, forever sealing racial integration as part of The Corny Collins Show.

So, a word of caution, do not expect a replica of Hairspray the movie or better still, do not watch the movie before you watch this musical.

All in all, Hairspray The Broadway Musical is a simple yet colourful story about fitting in, being the underdog, going against all odds for friendship and love, and finding courage and bravery in times of desperation. And the fact that the audiences were clapping and singing along, moving their heads to the beat is a testament that when you do watch Hairspray, you really can't stop the beat.

Hairspray The Broadway Musical is presented by Yvents! with Star Publications (M) Bhd as the media partner. It is staged at the Plenary Hall, Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre until Sept 22. HSBC Cards is the official credit card. HSBC credit card holders enjoy exclusive discounts on tickets.

Tickets priced at RM190, RM290, RM390, RM490 and RM590 (excluding a RM3 ticketing fee), are available from TicketsPeople. For details, call 03-2287 2727 or visit ticketspeople.com.

Related stories:

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Positively uplifting playing Tracy Turnblad

He&#8217;s every woman


Damian Williams makes a big splash as Edna Turnblad in Hairspray The Broadway Musical.

DAMIAN Williams can't see himself playing any other parts other than that of Edna Turnblad in Hairspray The Broadway Musical.

"I don't know who else I could play, really. I think Edna is ideal for me in terms of physicality because you know, you need a big guy to play the character," says the 42-year-old British actor.

For almost a week now, the Essex-born actor has been performing the role for the wildly popular theatre production that is being staged here at the Plenary Hall, Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre.

Based on the 1988 John Waters film of the same name, Hairspray the musical tells the story of "pleasantly plump" Tracy Turnblad's dream.

It's 1962 in Baltimore and there's nothing that Tracy wants more than to dance on The Corny Collins Show, a local dance programme based on the real-life Buddy Deane Show.

And when Tracy finally wins a role on the show, she launches a campaign to bring down social barriers in the 1960s American society.

"At the core of it, the show deals with the issue of racism and fatism. There's just a lot of prejudice in that period," says Williams.

That being said, the man thinks the subjects tackled in Hairspray are still very much relevant in today's contemporary society.

"The musical showed you just how bad the situation really was back in the 1960s and I think the subject was handled really well," he says.

It's undeniable that Tracy's positive cause and the message of eradicating prejudices remain the premise of the musical. However, part of Hairspray's inherent appeal could also be attributed to the role of Edna, who is Tracy's agoraphobic mother.

In both the original film and subsequent theatre versions of the show, the character of Edna has been traditionally played by a man.

While some say that the decision served as a tribute to the drag queen Divine who first brought the character to life in the movie version, others have commented that the role is all about acceptance and breaking gender construct.

"Playing Edna is hard because you're obviously a man playing a woman. However, you want the audience to believe that you're also a woman although they know you're a man by the end of the show," adds Williams.

"It sounds really complicated but that's really what the part of Edna is all about."

For the majority of men, the idea of putting on a dress, make-up and wig does seem terribly emasculating. However, Williams has no qualms about embracing a feminine facade for the role.

"It was fine for me. It's sort of strange because once you put the bra on, you know the boobs, suddenly you find yourself walking more upright. And when you put the shoes and the wig on, it sort of just takes you over. But then again, it helps with getting into character."

A central character in the show, Edna is seen as this really shy and reclusive plus-sized woman who runs a laundry business out of her home when she's first introduced to the audience.

Edna's intrinsic characteristic is pretty much the polar opposite of stage actors who are usually extroverted and unreserved, but Williams doesn't seem to have a problem switching the character on.

"The script is such a well-written piece and that helps a great deal to guide you along. In a way, the script sort of acted for you and Edna is a really fun role to play. I think she'll be one of my favourite roles when I look back," he reveals.

Williams notes that many famous actors have played the role in both Broadway and the West End, and he does try to put his own interpretation into the iconic character.

"I try to make her a warmer person. At the end of the day, she's a mum. She has a daughter and I make her as warm as I can," says the proud father of two.

Prior to Hairspray, the man just finished a number one British theatre tour Being Tommy Cooper, where he played the lead. His other roles include Daddy Warbucks in Annie, Alfred P. Doolittle in My Fair Lady, Mr Fezziwig in Scrooge and Sir John Tremayne in Me And My Girl.

For someone who began dabbling in the theatre scene at the age of 15, it is interesting to learn that Williams doesn't have any formal training in theatre.

"I trained by just doing different plays and different parts. I also watched other people and picked up all the acting skills along the way," he says.

But for most part of his career, Williams has been doing various comedy roles that range from Luther Billis in South Pacific to Pseudolus in A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum.

"I love comedy because you get an instant reaction from the audience. If they laugh, you know you're doing your job right.

"A lot of people say it's hard but comedy is all about bravery. You got to be brave and wait for the perfect comic timing. Some actors fear it, but I enjoy it," he concludes.

Related story:
Damian Williams - The transformation from man to woman
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