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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Arts & Fashion

Raring to kick off Dr Seuss musical


DATIN Seri Tiara Jacquelina cries at rehearsals. Oh dear. But she assures me that it's the "good" kind of crying.

"I've been watching the cast rehearse for six weeks now, and the ending still gets me each time. It's just such a feel-good ending," she says of Seussical Jr, Enfiniti Academy's inaugural production.

When Tiara founded the Enfiniti Academy of Musical Theatre and Entertainment Arts in 2011, the goal was to "train and nurture a continuous stream of performers of the highest calibre."

Two-and-a-half years down the road, these students are raring to go. And what better way to celebrate than with a show. In fact, if everything goes as planned, Enfiniti Academy, after kicking off with Seussical Jr, will have two shows each year.

The decision to stage the whimsical Seussical Jr, a musical based on the works of American writer Theodor Seuss Geisel (best known as Dr Seuss), was not a difficult one.

Enfiniti Academy's course director Joanna Bessey suggested it, and Tiara welcomed the idea.

"I've not watched the musical before, but just the fact that it was Dr Seuss already had me sold," says Tiara, who is a fan of his works.

"I grew up with the Dr Seuss books and I just love the way he writes, how clever the rhymes are, and how his books invite the reader to dream the impossible. If a word doesn't exist, just use your imagination! So I kind of grew up to be such a person as well," says the executive producer of Seussical Jr with a laugh, adding that her favourite Dr Seuss story is of Thidwick The Big-Hearted Moose.

"My kids used to make me read it to them over and over again because it is just so fun."

While Seussical Jr – which is an amalgamation of several stories and characters – might be just as quirky and fun, Tiara is quick to stress that this is a production that does not take itself lightly behind the scenes.

Enfiniti Academy is wholly owned by Enfiniti Vision Media, the producer behind the award-winning Puteri Gunung Ledang, P. Ramlee The Musical and The Secret Life Of Nora. Some of the same professionals who worked on these shows are supporting the young cast of Seussical Jr.

With Stephen Rahman-Hughes as director and choreographer, Vince Chong as performance mentor and Llewelyn Marsh as music director, this musical holds the promise of "being as professional as any of our big shows", according to Tiara.

"The only difference is that it is acted by young people – and it is young people performing at such an impressive level that you forget their age," she says.

"There's something magical about being part of a musical. You know that you're on the right track when some of the young ones moan about how it is not fair that they have to miss rehearsals just because they are sick! That's so sweet," relates Tiara.

Tickets for the opening night of Seussical Jr have all been snapped up, and Tiara shares that more than half the seats in total have been purchased for this "show for the whole family".

"Anyone from two years old and above can come and immerse themselves in the colourful and whimsical world of Dr Seuss. I promise that you will be thoroughly entertained at Seussical Jr!" she says.

Related story:

Stephen Rahman-Hughes stays young at heart

Stephen Rahman-Hughes stays young at heart


Stephen Rahman-Hughes is a cat in a different hat as he directs his first production, Seussical Jr, in Malaysia.

STEPHEN Rahman-Hughes still remembers how he started in theatre – by walking the streets of London. In the name of research, of course.

Having performed in a funk band for a while, he had just landed his first stage role in Homeless the musical, and had to hit the streets to talk to the homeless about their experiences.

"We built a storyline from that and I ended up writing a couple of songs for the musical," he recalls.

There was no looking back for him after that.

Fast forward a little, and now Rahman-Hughes is directing his first production in Malaysia.

"This is a perfect opportunity for me to have some fun and direct my first production here. Great story, great music and a bunch of wonderfully talented kids," he says of Enfiniti Academy's take on Seussical Jr with a cast of over 30 young performers, ranging from ages eight to 18.

"Tiara (Jacquelina, founder of the academy and executive producer of the musical) and Jo (Joanna Bessey, the academy's course director and the musical's associate producer) have put together a strong team on the creative side. I'm lucky to have the support of exceptional industry pros to give me their expertise to elevate my ideas."

Believe it when he says he has ideas. This man has done it all, it seems – from dancing to acting, from singing to choreographing.

From Homeless, Rahman-Hughes went on to train at the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance and founded Red Rain Dance Theatre. The multi-talented performer was in a British tour of West Side Story, played the lead role in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Bombay Dreams, and acted in several TV shows, including musical TV series The Kitchen Musical. He is also the founding member of the vocal group Teatro.

Closer to home, the British-Malaysian played Hang Tuah in the award-winning Puteri Gunung Ledang The Musical, where he had to learn Malay from scratch – and a few years later played Merong in local epic action film Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa.

Choreography? Cuci The Musical in 2009. Singing? Yes, a solo concert at Dewan Filharmonik in 2010, not to forget a self-titled album in Malay in late 2011.

Rahman-Hughes flew in from London, where he is based, specifically for Seussical Jr. On the side, he has also met with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra in preparation for a concert – In The Mood For Love – in February.

No stranger to working with children, he says that he has always loved it. It's apparent that he feels the same this time as well – just last week, he tweeted that "working with these kids is such a blast."

"The kids are so affectionate and excited by the work. They are just great and working with them is a fantastic experience. What an amazing bunch," adds the Seussical Jr director and choreographer.

He comments on their enthusiasm and energy, confiding that it sometimes "gets a little nuts with all that boundless energy, but they are learning to focus it into the work."

"They surprise me every day. I try to use what they give me as much as possible so that they feel they have the permission to explore and express. It is important that they feel confident so they can improve quickly since we have limited time to put it all together," he says.

It sure sounds like Rahman-Hughes is taking it all in his stride, especially when he goes on to talk about how important it is to run with a young person's love of play.

"A lot of the creative process has to be fun and shaped like a game. Getting them to stay switched on is the key, so you have to keep them interested in what they are doing. You can't set tasks that are too advanced, but if it's too easy, they can get easily bored," he explains.

"Children need a little more guidance and sometimes you'll have to take on the role of a teacher to those with little or no experience."

To him, the reward is simply "seeing the kids' faces light up and watching them develop."

"I love it when their personalities come out. They are such a funny bunch. We laugh an awful lot together and there is so much talent and humour in our cast," he shares.

Seussical Jr the musical follows the tale of a few characters from several Dr Seuss books – from Horton the elephant who hears voices on a speck of dust to Gertrude McFuzz who has only one feather on her tail, and a critical Sour Kangaroo, as well as mischievous monkeys, just to name a few.

"The story travels very quickly. The Cat In The Hat creates mayhem by encouraging a young boy, who later becomes Jojo, son of Mr and Mrs Mayor of Whoville, to use his imagination or 'Thinks' to create our story," says Rahman-Hughes, whose childhood – due to his growing up in Britain – was more Roald Dahl than Dr Seuss.

Nevertheless, he knew of the books and recalls, with some trepidation, seeing images of The Grinch.

"I remember seeing images of The Grinch as a kid – but I thought he looked pretty freaky!" he says.

Still, when Seussical Jr associate producer Bessey called him and asked if this would be something that he would like to do, he got to reading and watching Horton Hears A Who.

"I got really interested in it – they have such wonderful messages inside the strange and quirky stories. The characters are adorable and the story lines are moving," he says.

And when the curtains open on Thursday to the catchy "Oh, the Thinks you can think! Oh, the Thinks you can think, if you're willing to try ... Think and wonder and dream – Far and wide as you dare!" Rahman-Hughes – and all the other people behind Seussical Jr, both the young and young at heart – will have done just that.

*Seussical Jr will be staged at PJ Live Arts Theatre, Jaya One (Ground Floor, Block K, 72A, Jalan Universiti, PJ) from Dec 12 to 15 at 8.30pm, with additional shows at 3.30pm on Dec 14 and 15 only. Tickets, priced at RM63, can be purchased at www.tix.my or 03-7960 0439/017-228 9849. For more information, visit fb.com/EnactSeussicalJr.

Related story:

They're raring to go

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