Walking With Dinosaurs – The Live Experience (Singapore) Review

WALKING WITH DINOSAURS – THE LIVE EXPERIENCE

29 August – 8 September
Singapore Indoor Stadium

Dinosaurs came alive and stomped about the stage of the Singapore Indoor Stadium in 2010 and now, they have returned. Walking With Dinosaurs – The Live Experience is back in Singapore, bringing with it 18 full-sized living, breathing dinosaurs.

The theatrical presentation is based on the 1999 BBC documentary series Walking With Dinosaurs, which has since become a successful multimedia franchise including subsequent series like Walking With Beasts and a 2013 feature film.

This arena show was developed by Global Creatures, an Australian company that has since produced How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular and the King Kong musical. Creature designer and creative director of the Global Creatures-owned Creature Technology Company Sonny Tilders recently won a Special Tony Award for King Kong, but it was Walking With Dinosaurs that put him and the Creature Technology Company on the map.

Walking With Dinosaurs Live is a technical and artistic feat. One can’t help but marvel at the staggering, magnificent beasts which are brought to life with a variety of techniques, combining old-fashioned performers in suits, sophisticated animatronics and what are essentially high-tech parade floats on wheels.

There are certain physical limitations in place, as this show is akin to a ballet for semi-trucks. Only so much can be done with the creatures, but that alone is impressive. The sheer scale of the larger dinosaurs, especially the 11-metre-tall Brachiosaurus with its neck reaching almost to the lighting rig above, is something to behold. The sheer power and ferocity of dinosaurs like the Allosaurus and Tyrannosaurus rex is surprisingly convincing, and soon you’ll forget that these are masses of hydraulic hose, cylinders, fabric, foam and cabling and buy them as living, breathing animals.

There’s quite a bit going on with the set too – rock formations move apart then come together to represent continental drift, while inflatable trees and flowers sprout from the scenery, simulating time-lapse photography. The show’s lighting design is immersive, and all this is complemented and often driven by a lush, stirring musical score by James Brett.

While the adults in the audience will likely come away very impressed, Walking With Dinosaurs Live is still mainly aimed at children. The show is educational, with the character Huxley spouting facts and figures and giving us helpful background information, but all that takes a backseat to the spectacle.

Huxley is played by two actors during this production, Dominic Rickhards and Andrew Lewis (we saw Rickhards in the role). Huxley is a temporal tour guide, taking audiences through the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods that form the Mesozoic Era, spanning hundreds of millions of years. The character is there not just as a narrator, but also to show the sheer scale of the dinosaurs and to sometimes run away from them.

There isn’t a lot of room in how the Huxley character can be interpreted, but Rickhards’ enthusiastic Animal Planet-style delivery helps tie everything together. It’s reminiscent of presenter Nigel Marven, who played a time-travelling version of himself in Chased By Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Park. We have great respect for how he must memorise reams of dialogue, as he is the only speaking character for the show’s 100-minute duration.

Just as the TV series did, Walking With Dinosaurs gives us snapshots of these animals’ lives, speculating on their behavioural patterns based on palaeontology. The dinosaurs are imbued with just enough recognisable attributes, achieving a similar effect as when we go to the zoo and compare the animals to our own friends and family. Since many parents will bring their children to watch the show, it makes sense that the show presents interactions between several dinosaurs and their young.

The show’s funniest and most emotional scene is that of the mischievous Baby T. rex, who tries to take on the much larger Torosaurus and Ankylosaurus, necessitating his rescue by his mother. The interaction between the Baby T. rex and his mother is heart-warming – again, it’s easy to forget that Mama T. rex is a giant machine on wheels, and that her baby is a man in a suit, even when that man’s legs are visible. It’s almost like how one stops noticing the puppeteer in a traditional Bunraku performance after a while.

While the story and the dinosaurs that appear remain largely the same, the show has been upgraded from its earlier incarnations with several of the dinosaurs being feathered, in accordance with current research. This reviewer felt like there was one step back: the flying Ornithocheirus was previously a puppet suspended on wires but has been replaced with an animated Ornithocheirus. While the CGI is good and while this doesn’t have the biggest impact on the show overall, the Ornithocheirus was the one puppet that was significantly different from the others used in the show.

Don’t let a CGI Pterosaur stop you from watching this though. For any dinosaur-obsessed kid, it is exhilarating to see the creatures realised so vividly before one’s very eyes – especially if you’re in the expensive seats and the Brachiosaurus cranes its neck, bending down to say greet the audience. There’s a lot to appreciate from a technical and artistic standpoint too. On paper, it might sound impossible to make a ballet for semi-trucks compelling but Walking With Dinosaurs Live accomplishes this feat.

Read my vintage review of the show when I saw it in 2010 here.

When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth: Behind the Spectacle of Walking With Dinosaurs – The Live Experience

We speak to the people who make dinosaurs come alive in this arena spectacular
By Jedd Jong

Dinosaurs, titans of a bygone age, have always captured the imagination. Movies, TV shows and exhibitions at museums and theme parks have attempted to bring them back to life but Walking With Dinosaurs – The Live Spectacular is probably the closest one can get to actually breathing the same air as these magnificent creatures.

Walking With Dinosaurs Live is a theatrical presentation featuring 18 life-sized dinosaurs that move around a stage, fighting, eating and interacting much as they would millions of years ago. The show is based on the 1999 BBC documentary series Walking With Dinosaurs, which was shot on location around the world and used Jurassic Park-style computer-generated imagery and animatronics to create a nature documentary. This arena show premiered in 2007 and has since toured Australia, Europe, North America and Asia.

The dinosaurs are created by Global Creatures which is headed by Sonny Tilders, who recently won a Tony award for creating the titular giant ape in the King Kong musical. A blend of engineering and artistry has gone into creating dinosaurs with realistic appearance and movement.

There are two main types of dinosaurs seen in the show: the Utahraptors, Liliensternus and baby T. Rex are puppeteered by performers in suits, while the larger dinosaurs like the Brachiosaurus, Stegosaurus, Allosaurus and adult T. rex are akin to high-tech parade floats. For the latter variety, there is a chassis which conceals a driver, while puppeteers remotely control the movements of the body and the head and jaw with telemetry devices. Each large dinosaur weighs 2100 kg, around the same as a medium-sized family car. The show travels in 28 sea containers that are 12 metres long each.

Resident director Ian Waller

“It was a pioneer at its time. There was nothing like it and there still really isn’t anything like it,” said the show’s resident director, Ian Waller. Waller’s background is in musical theatre: he’s been the resident director of touring productions of Annie and Chicago and has been the resident choreographer of Billy Elliot and West Side Story.

While Walking With Dinosaurs Live is not a musical, it is very much in Waller’s wheelhouse. “It’s still a theatrical piece. It’s all done with music, on a music base, then there’s a story, so it’s not too far away from what I’m used to doing in theatre,” he shared. The show’s original director Scott Faris also has a background in musical theatre, having helmed over 20 productions of Chicago, and has since selected resident directors who also have experience in musical theatre.

The musical score by James Brett helps bring the presentation together in a cinematic way. “It’s the music that sets the theme, even subliminally. If there’s danger, the music changes,” Waller said. He compared Brett’s use of different leitmotifs assigned to each dinosaur as reminiscent of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.

Waller spoke about Sonny Tilders’ vision in creating the creatures. “He wanted it to be so far away from any exhibition that was repetitive and robotic. He said, ‘There’s no point in doing this unless we can make them real.’ He’s incredibly protective over these [dinosaurs]. Even now, ten, 11, 12 years later, these are still his babies,” Waller said, adding that he must send weekly reports on the show back to Tilders’ team in Australia.

There is a sole human character who functions as our guide through the Mesozoic era: the palaeontologist Huxley, named for Thomas Huxley, considered one of the fathers of modern palaeontology. “He’s a crucial part of our show, to link our stories, to link the eras. If you didn’t have him, you’d just have a bunch of dinosaurs walking around the stage,” Waller said. Huxley also helps sell the sheer scale of the creatures.

Andrew Lewis (Huxley)

We spoke to Andrew Lewis, one of two actors who shares the role of Huxley in this production (The other being Dominic Rickhards). “When I first started to do it, I developed a personal relationship with the dinosaurs myself, so that when they come onto the stage, I have a response to them,” Lewis said. “Therefore, the audience are journeying with me, through me, to the time I travel back to.”

The time-travelling Huxley is a proxy for the audience, functioning both as a narrator and as a part of the story. “I have to capture that awe and wonder of what these huge magnificent beasts would have been like,” Lewis said, adding “The fact that they are genuine size obviously helps.”

While Huxley is the only human being who’s physically visible in the show, Lewis is cognisant of the sheer amount of cooperation it takes the keep the show running “We are a unit, we work as one body, as with any theatre piece,” he commented. “Whoever’s seen onstage and whoever’s offstage are all an immense part of the whole spectacle you’re going to see, and that’s the same in this, and you respect their input.”

Suit performer Neal Holmes

One such unseen performer is Neal Holmes, who puts on a suit to play either the Baby T. rex, one of the Utahraptors or the Liliensternus, depending on the performance. The suits weigh between 30 and 45 kg. “At the beginning, when I first started doing this job, it was extremely difficult and a little bit stressful and taxing, but over time, with lots and lots of practice, like anything, it becomes like second nature,” Holmes, who has a background in acrobatics, parkour and other sports. “The more you do something, the easier it is.”

The Baby T. rex is a boisterous, mischievous character, who gets into trouble and needs to be saved by his mother during the big finale of the show. “You know you’ve done a good job when you do the kiss after the Baby T. gets rescued by the mum and you get a round of applause or an ‘aww’ or a reaction,” Holmes said.

“A good rule of thumb is less is more,” Holmes pointed out, adding that “the suit looks amazing just standing still.” Holmes has made several publicity appearances as the Baby T. rex interacting with people in public. “Some parents forget the kids are crying and they’ll just hold the kids up. I try to avoid them,” he said, quipping “sometimes the parents are more scared than the kids.”

Why should audiences go to see Walking With Dinosaurs – The Live Experience? “You’re gonna see 18 life-sized dinosaurs walking around the stage telling you the story of the dinosaurs from the Triassic to the Cretaceous,” Waller said, adding “It’s as close as you’re going to get in a theatrical environment to seeing real-life dinosaurs.”

Walking With Dinosaurs – The Live Experience runs from 20 August to 8 September at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. Tickets start from $78 (discounts available). Visit http://www.sportshubtix.sg for tickets.

Musical review: Aladdin (Singapore 2019)

For inSing

ALADDIN

21 July – 1 September
Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Photo credit: James Green

Disney’s recent live-action remakes of their beloved animated films have drawn many detractors. If you’ve been dissatisfied with those, look no further than Disney Theatrical’s stage versions, which are often lively, worthwhile adaptations of the animated movies – this certainly is the case with Aladdin.

Based on the 1992 animated film, the tale of a ‘street rat’ who falls in love with a princess and meets an all-powerful genie is ideal material for a stage musical – not least because the film features such memorable songs as “A Whole New World”, “Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali”.

Photo credit: James Green

The musical features the songs written for the film by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, including songs that were eventually cut from the film like “Proud of Your Boy”. New songss are written by Menken with lyrics by Chad Beguelin, who also penned the book.

Directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, Aladdin is a relentlessly dazzling spectacle that sweeps audiences up in concentrated Disney magic from the opening strains of “Arabian Nights”. Scene transitions in which set pieces swoop on and off stage are breath-taking just by themselves, let alone the actual set pieces. There’s a vibrancy to the scenic design by Bob Crowley, enhanced by Natasha Katz’s lighting, truly transporting audiences to the mythical Agrabah.

Photo: Deen van Meer

One of the elements that was missing from the recent Guy Ritchie-directed Aladdin film was an overwhelming muchness – Aladdin should be so visually exuberant that audiences almost drown in the energetic splendour of its spectacle. The musical has this effect and then some. The Cave of Wonders with its reflective vaulted ceilings is the ideal setting for “Friend Like Me” to unfold against. If you’re wondering “just how magical is the magic carpet anyway?” you’re not prepared to be utterly mystified, not just during “A Whole New World” but when the magic carpet later makes its appearance in broad daylight.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Then of course, there are the costumes designed by Gregg Barnes. Sparkly, opulent, bursting with detail and often completely covered in Swarovski crystals, it can’t be easy to move around in these, let alone dance and run up and down stairs backstage in between scenes. As with many other things, the costumes in this stage musical feel a cut above those seen in the live-action movie.

All the bells and whistles in the land are nothing without a strong cast, even in a show that is so reliant on bells and whistles. Thankfully, this production of Aladdin has that covered.

Photo credit: James Green

Graeme Isaako is a likeable lead who is up for the strenuous physicality of the role (as evidenced by the perspiration on his chest). Aladdin is the thief with a heart of gold, so he should have a playfulness to him with an underlying sincerity and a bit of dopiness, all of which Isaako delivers. Vocally, he is not as strong as the other two leads, meaning his renditions of soaring ballads like “Proud of Your Boy” are not quite as powerful as those performed by other Aladdins. However, Isaako more than makes up for it with a heroic presence that never crosses into outright arrogance.

Photo credit: James Green

Shubshri Kandiah is perfection as Jasmine. She ably captures the Disney Princess’ signature confidence and headstrong desire to break free from the shackles of tradition which dictate that she must be married off to a prince. Kandiah’s facial expressions seem to be patterned off the original animated Jasmine, such that it feels like the cartoon character has literally come to life onstage. In the 1992 film, Jasmine did not get an ‘I Want’ song the way most Disney Princesses do, which is rectified here with “These Palace Walls”. It’s a number that begins with perturbed defiance, then breaking into gliding wistfulness and concluding with a powerful declaration that Jasmine will find what awaits her. It’s worth shelling out for the more expensive tickets for Kandiah’s performance alone.

Photo credit: James Green

In the animated film, the star of the show was Robin Williams’ Genie. That singular iteration of the character leaves big shoes for anyone following to fill. James Monroe Iglehart won a Tony Award for originating the Genie role on Broadway, and Gareth Jacobs is more than up to the task of following those two towering takes on a beloved character.

Photo credit: Jeff Busby

Jacobs is having endless amounts of fun in the role, leaving everything onstage and pouring all his energy and wit into the performance. This is a sassy, fabulous Genie who has an attitude that is distinct from Williams’ version while still reminding audiences just enough of the fast-talking impressionist. Isaako and Jacobs work hard at selling the friendship between Aladdin and Genie, so it is emotional when they do fall out.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Patrick R. Brown is an imposing Jafar – the actor has experience playing Disney villains onstage, having portrayed Scar in The Lion King. This reviewer’s friend said Jafar should be a human version of Scar, which is what we get here. Jafar gets a new song called “Diamond in the Rough”, but it just feels like he is lacking a truly impact villain song – Jafar deserves a “Be Prepared”, a “Poor Unfortunate Souls” or a “Hellfire”, and the stage musical doesn’t really give him that.

Doron Chester is deliberately grating but also amusing as Iago, who is portrayed as a human henchman to Jafar instead of as a parrot. Chester aims for a Gilbert Gottfried quality in his voice, without going full-on screech.

Darren Yap brings a mix of dignity and amiable silliness to the Sultan, a character who’s rendered as less of a goofball than in the cartoon.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

The show’s weak link is Aladdin’s three friends Babkak, Omar and Kassim, played by Troy Sussman, Rob Mallett and Adam Di Martino respectively. These characters were in the original concept for the animated film, before being replaced by Abu the monkey, and are reinstated in this version. It is with these characters, one of whom makes many food puns, that the show feels the most pantomime-like. “High Adventure” goes on for much too long, and we long to be back with Aladdin, Jasmine and the Genie rather than with these side characters. Also, Aladdin’s life seems less tragic if he has three best friends who follow him around, instead of one monkey.

Photo credit: James Green

In its writing, Aladdin does sometimes feel like a pantomime or a theme park attraction, but its presentation is so lavish and elaborate that it never strays far from being Grade A entertainment. Aladdin is a night at the theatre that will leave you in awe of the performances and the stagecraft and will give you many sleepless nights trying to think just how they made that darn carpet fly. As the Sultan said in the animated film, “Splendid! Absolutely Marvelous!”

Jedd Jong

Aladdin is produced by Disney Theatrical Productions and presented by BASE Entertainment Asia, with co-presenters TEG Dainty, Singtel, Mediacrop VizPro and official serviced apartment partner Oakwood Premier.

Tickets start from $68 (excluding $4 booking fee). Visit https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/aladdin0919 to purchase tickets and find out more.

A Royal Audience With Prince Ali: Aladdin Musical Press Call

For inSing

A ROYAL AUDIENCE WITH PRINCE ALI

inSing journeys to Agrabah for an inside look at Disney’s Aladdin musical

By Jedd Jong

Photo by Jedd Jong

Agrabah might be a faraway place where the caravan camels roam, but Disney Theatrical Productions has brought this mystical locale to our doorstep. Aladdin is now playing at the Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands Singapore for a limited season of only 50 performances, the English-language production making its first and only stop in Asia.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Aladdin is directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholaw, whose credits include The Book of Mormon, Mean Girls and the recent The Prom. The show features songs like “A Whole New World” and “Friend Like Me” by Alan Menken, Howard Ashman and Tim Rice, including songs originally written but eventually cut from the animated film. New songs including “These Palace Walls” and “Diamond in the Rough” were composed by Menken with lyrics by Chad Beguelin, who also wrote the show’s book.

After tryouts in Seattle and Toronto, the theatrical adaptation of Disney’s 1992 movie opened on Broadway in March 2014. A production ran in London from 2016 to 2019, with German and Japanese-language productions still running.

Associate director Scott Taylor with actors Troy Sussman (Babkak), Adam Di Martino (Omar) and Rob Mallet (Kassim). Photo by Jedd Jong

“We have taken away [nothing] from the Broadway production,” proclaimed Associate Director Scott Taylor, who’s been attached to every production of the musical since its inception. “We’ve not made it smaller; we’ve not diminished the magic and the size and the production values in any way. It’s a big, big thing to do,” he stated.

The truly lavish production has the numbers to back it up: a cast of 34 wear 337 costumes made of 1225 different fabrics and featuring almost 500 000 Swarovski crystals. 40 tonnes of flying scenery and 60 tonnes of automation were transported in over 30, 40-foot-long sea containers. The show’s set-pieces, designed by Bob Crowley, include the glittering Cave of Wonders, the vibrant marketplace, the lush palace of Agrabah and of course the hypnotic magic carpet ride.

Gareth Jacobs (Genie), Shubshri Kandiah (Jasmine) and Graeme Isaako (Aladdin). Photo by Jedd Jong

This cast of this production hails mainly from Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada. After performing “A Million Miles Away” and segments of “Arabian Nights” and “Friend Like Me” during the press call, actors Graeme Isaako (Aladdin), Shubshri Kandiah (Jasmine) and Gareth Jacobs (the Genie) spoke to inSing and other media at a group interview.

Photo by Jedd Jong

New Zealand performer Isaako said that he is like Aladdin in that he is energetic, talkative and has a bit of a mischievous streak. He recounted clinching the role after being an understudy for Ainsley Melham, who moved on from playing Aladdin in the Australian production to Aladdin on Broadway. “I was speechless. I honestly didn’t talk for about a minute,” Isaako recalled. “There was a pillow and I screamed into the pillow. I didn’t know that was in me…but I’m so grateful.”

The parkour stunts are a key element to the portrayal of a character who’s always “One Jump Ahead” of those on his tail. “When I found out that I would be jumping over buildings and jumping off and landing on things, it was exciting for me,” Isaako said. “I saw it as a challenge, but it’s also ensuring that I’m safe at all times. It is pretty fun, but I’ve got to make sure that I’m not endangering other people.”

Photo by Jedd Jong

For Isaako, it’s knowing that audiences enjoy the show that keeps him going. “The best thing about it is no audience is the same,” he noted. “The audience smiling back at you is enough, it’s enough petrol for your tank, it’s enough to get you through,” Isaako enthused. “That’s why we do it, we do this because we love it and it changes people’s lives and makes them happy.”

Photo by Jedd Jong

After Belle in 1991’s Beauty and the Beast, Jasmine was one of the Disney Princesses who made an impression by being headstrong and determined, far from your average damsel in distress. In Aladdin, she wants to marry for love rather than being given away to a foreign prince for political expediency. “I love stepping into her shoes every night and becoming this woman that is courageous and feisty and stands up for what she believes in,” Kandiah enthused. “I think she’s such a role model to women with her strength…and that she’s not afraid to voice her opinions, and I absolutely love that.”

Photo by Jedd Jong

Like many, Kandiah grew up a “massive Disney fan,” singing along to the songs each time she re-watched the movies. “It’s honestly such a dream come true to be in this production and playing this role,” she said, adding that a recent trip to Morocco made her realise how relevant the show’s themes, especially with regards to the roles of women in society, still are.

Photo by Jedd Jong

Kandiah’s favourite scene in the show is “Million Miles Away”, a sweet moment shared by Aladdin and Jasmine at his rooftop hideout. “I think there’s a moment there every night when we’re singing about hopes and dreams that I [realise] I’m living my dream every night,” Kandiah said wistfully.

Photo by Jedd Jong

The show is designed to be stolen by the Genie. In the animated film, the Genie was memorably voiced by Robin Williams, whose fast-talking, impressions-and-improv-driven take on the character has become a pop culture cornerstone. The initial conception for the Genie before Williams made the role his own was a character inspired by singers like Cab Calloway and Fats Waller. The musical’s version of Genie is closer to this idea, with the original Broadway Genie James Monroe Iglehart winning a Tony Award for his portrayal of the character.

Photo by: Jedd Jong

“I met James so I got to talk about how he created the role, and I met Alan Menken as well, who created the music and a lot of my childhood nostalgia,” Jacobs said. Jacobs called the task “daunting” because Robin Williams was “the most amazing character that the world has ever seen” and “trying to do it justice without copying exactly what he did out there as well was quite difficult.” Jacobs described Iglehart’s take on the Genie, building off Williams’, as “like a giant Jenga tower that you put together.” Jacobs said that getting to put his own spin on the iconic role “is just so exciting to do every night.”

Photo by Jedd Jong

Jacobs has competition for audiences’ attention, because the Genie makes his debut against the jaw-dropping backdrop of the Cave of Wonders during “Friend Like Me”. The inner walls of the gleaming cavern are coated with the same gold material that is used for the droid C-3PO in the Star Wars films. The Cave of Wonders features 120 gold pieces used to depict the treasure strewn across its floor.

Photo by Jedd Jong

“It’s such an amazing set and there’s so much to see, so knowing that there is that to compete with is sometimes quite difficult to do,” Jacobs admitted, but he added that the script and the song is so well-written “that it speaks for itself.” The number is musical theatre on steroids: “We’ve got pyrotechnics, we’ve got tap-dancing, we’ve got everything involved in that one scene,” Jacobs declared, offering a guarantee: “If someone walks away from that not happy, then please definitely come and talk to me because we’re going to have a very serious conversation about how I can make you happy…there’s no way I think anyone could get away from that [unhappy].”

Photo by Jedd Jong

Company manager Matt Henderson took us on a backstage tour, showing us the wings of the theatre, set pieces hanging up in the flies, the props maintenance workshop and the wardrobe department/dressing room.

Photo by Jedd Jong

“The costumes in the show are almost a character unto themselves, they’re so part of the storytelling,” Henderson enthused, adding that he’s “never worked on a show where the costumes are so beautiful and elaborate. They really help drive the narrative of the story.” The costumes are designed by Gregg Barnes, a two-time Tony Award Winner for The Drowsy Chaperone and Follies. Barnes also designed the costumes for Legally Blonde, Kinky Boots and Mean Girls.

Photo by Jedd Jong

“It’s a spectacle,” Henderson declared, pointing out that one number features 108 costume changes – a world record. “I think there’s 80 of them in like 15 seconds. That’s a full change, including some wigs.” During this number, it is “chaos” backstage – “Controlled chaos, but it’s absolute chaos,” he continued. Henderson talked up a costume change which takes place in two seconds, challenging viewers to spot the blink-and-you’ll-miss it moment. “I’ll give you a clue, it’s Aladdin,” Henderson said. “Don’t take your eyes off him, because he does go from being a street rat to a prince in two seconds, and it happens onstage.”

Photo by James Green

One of the show’s most closely guarded secrets is naturally the one that draws the most curiousity. Every performance, the magic carpet takes to the skies with Aladdin and Jasmine upon it, seemingly flying around the stage without the use of wires.

“I’ve got family and everyone’s like ‘I’ll buy you a drink if you tell me how the carpet works’ – and you don’t want to know!” Henderson cautioned. Cursed with the knowledge that has dissolved the wonderment, Henderson said “I do know how it works and I was so upset when I found out because I love the magic of it.”

The magic lamps in their protective case. Photo by Jedd Jong

Has Henderson snuck a ride on the magic carpet himself? He’s not allowed. “I’m also a little bit afraid of heights,” Henderson confessed, adding “I like to complain that I haven’t been on it, but if they let me go, I’d be like ‘no no no.’ Terrified. I don’t trust Graeme as a driver as well.”

Experience the music, the magic and take a journey to Agrabah with Aladdin, which runs from now until September 1. Tickets start at $68 (not including $4 booking fee). Visit https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/aladdin0919 to buy tickets and find out more.

The Phantom of the Opera musical review (Singapore 2019)

For Popcorn 

THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA

24 April – 8 June
Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

The Phantom of the Opera is a juggernaut: a show beloved by legions of devoted ‘Phans’ and one that has been seen by over 140 million people around the world, grossing over $6 billion. In its 30-plus years of existence, it has become a phenomenon, with this marking the fourth time the Phantom’s gondola has travelled to our shores.

Based on Gaston Leroux’s gothic horror novel, The Phantom of the Opera is set in the Paris Opera House towards the end of the 19th Century. A mysterious deformed musical genius known only as “the Phantom” has become something of an urban legend among the company of the Opera House. The Phantom has taken young ballet/chorus girl Christine Daaé under his wing, becoming obsessed with nurturing her talent and consequently, with her. The opera’s wealthy patron Raoul, the Vicomte de Chagny, enters the fray. He is a childhood friend of Christine’s, and when they rekindle their relationship, the Phantom becomes jealous and maniacal, stopping at nothing to win Christine for himself.

Just as The Phantom of the Opera has its die-hard supporters, the show also has its detractors. There are some who think it is gaudy and overblown, and that its emphasis on blockbuster spectacle over artistry does a disservice to theatre. While there is some validity to this point of view, it’s hard not to be seduced by the Phantom. A night out at the theatre does not come cheap, and there are few musicals which justify ticket prices more than Phantom does. There’s the Phantom’s candlelit lair, there’s the roof of the Opera House with its angel statue, there’s the grand staircase during “Masquerade” and of course that chandelier. It’s a complete experience, one which wraps the audience up and doesn’t let them go.

The music is enthralling, with many songs being immediately memorable. This is Andrew Lloyd Webber at his most Andrew Lloyd Webber, delivering not just lush melodies but also referencing existing operas for the shows-within-a-show mounted by the company of the Paris Opera House.

Songs like the title track and “Music of the Night” are so well known, that it’s easy to forget just how good the lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe are. “Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again” has a mournful wistfulness that explodes into heartache, while “Point of No Return” is fatalistic, passionate and ominous. “Masquerade” bursts with joy, but a spectre hangs over the celebration. Every song has its place, and this is a show with an absurdly high “humming as you leave the theatre” quotient.

One of the things that makes Phantom work as a musical is that the story is set in an opera house. While the show is billed as a romance, a big part of it is the backstage farce – it’s a show about show-business. The new managers of the Opera House are woefully ill-equipped to deal with the artists they oversee, let alone the Phantom lurking beneath. There’s a clash between the “show” and “business” sides, which provides Phantom some much-needed levity.

Jonathan Roxmouth’s Phantom is a charismatic presence, with the actor truly coming into his own during “Final Lair”, the emotional climax of the show. This is a maximally daunting role, and while Roxmouth might not be the strongest Phantom out there when it comes to the vocals, he brings the essential mystique to the character, engendering both sympathy and revulsion. This is a character who does outright villainous things, but whom the audience gravitates towards because of his tragic back-story and because of his mystery. The Phantom has no baseline for healthy human interactions, so his idea of wooing a girl is to build a mannequin of her wearing a wedding dress. There’s a sadness to the character but we understand why he’s that way. Phantom is not a subtle show and the Phantom himself is not a subtle character, so the nuance that Roxmouth brings to the part goes a long way.

Viewed through a modern lens, there certainly are problematic elements to the story, most of which lie with its treatment of Christine. However, as played by Meghan Picerno, Christine is a fighter. She goes from giving up her voice and her power to taking it back and not letting the men around her define her, as they try to do for the entire show. Picerno has an excellent look of panic whenever Christine realises that the Phantom is nearby, and during the moments when Christine is happy, she really sells that.

Picerno plays the ending of “Think of Me” perfectly – as Christine begins the cadenza, she seems unsure of herself, then as she continues, she finds her groove, and ends triumphantly, having made a stunning debut. Those who prefer seeing Christine as more of a naïve ingenue might not love Picerno’s take, but Christine as a fighter is an interpretation which works.

Raoul typically gets short shrift. We’ve all heard it before: he’s boring, he’s the safe alternative, he’s a rich kid who didn’t do very much to earn what he has. Matt Leisy seems aware of all this and creates a Raoul who, while charming, also has what it takes to go toe to toe with the Phantom. Raoul is the most under-written role of the three principals, but Leisy does remarkable work with the material, making the character more of a challenge to the Phantom’s grip on Christine.

Beverly Chiat is hilarious and boasts a powerful soprano as the conceited diva Carlotta Guidicelle, while Melina Kalomas is a textbook Madame Giry, secretive and severe. As the hapless managers Andre and Firmin respectively, Curt Olds and James Borthwick are an entertaining double act, just the right pitch of goofy.

There are few pieces of entertainment that I love more than The Phantom of the Opera, which means I’m predisposed to enjoy it, but which also means I have expectations every time I see the show. This production mostly meets those expectations, and watching it was a warm reminder of why I became a Phan in the first place.

Jedd Jong

Photo credits: The Phantom of the Opera World Tour

The night beckons: Phantom of the Opera musical Singapore press call

For Popcorn

THE NIGHT BECKONS: PHANTOM OF THE OPERA MUSICAL PRESS CALL

We peek behind the mask with the cast of the blockbuster musical
By Jedd Jong

The Phantom of the Opera is a familiar show and one that’s come to represent musical theatre, but a show that retains its mystique and appeal 30 years on. The musical debuted on the West End in 1986 and on Broadway in 1988, running uninterrupted in both regions since then. There have also been multiple touring productions, a 2004 feature film adaptation and a 25th anniversary performance. It is estimated that a staggering 140 million people have seen The Phantom of the Opera, and the musical has grossed over $6 billion.

It seems that Singapore can’t get enough of the Phantom – this is the show’s fourth visit to our shores, following productions in 1995, 2007 and 2013. The Phantom of the Opera features music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe. Many of its songs, including the title track, “Music of the Night”, “All I Ask of You” and “Masquerade”, have become popular culture staples. In addition to its memorable music, the show has become known for its spectacular sets, costumes and special effects, with a chandelier crash being its signature moment.

Based on the French novel by Gaston Leroux, The Phantom of the Opera is a sweeping romance set in the Paris Opera House. The titular character is a disfigured genius who lives in the catacombs beneath the opera house, and develops a fixation on Christine Daaé, a young ingenue in whom he sees tremendous potential. Raoul, the wealthy Vicomte de Chagny, is a childhood friend of Christine’s who re-enters her life, falling in love with her. The Phantom is determined to win Christine’s love at all costs, wreaking havoc on the Opera House and its occupants. Christine finds herself caught in a struggle of power and passion as dramatic as the operas she performs in.

This production opened on April 24 at Marina Bay Sands Singapore, where it is playing until June 8. The company arrived from Manila and this production retains the original costume and set design by the late Maria Björnson, with some elements redesigned to facilitate the touring. From the afore-mentioned chandelier to the grand staircase in the foyer of the Opera House, from the Phantom’s watery lair with its gondola and portcullis to the roof of the Opera house under a starlit sky, The Phantom of the Opera is as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the ears.

The title character is played by Jonathan Roxmouth, who last visited Singapore playing Che in Evita. Roxmouth has a smouldering leading man quality to him and is a fan of the show himself, sporting a pin in the shape of the Phantom’s mask on his lapel. He has a history with the show, having first played Raoul, then playing the Phantom. Looking back, he said “I was 24 and suddenly given the keys to the Rolls Royce that I was meant to rent twice a week. I was terrified; I didn’t have enough confidence in myself, I doubted myself every time. I got there, but it was a very, very difficult process.”

Roxmouth said he now understands why the conventional wisdom is that one should be of a certain age to take on the role of the Phantom. “I’ve lived a lot in the last eight years. I’ve had experiences with sadness, love, of heartbreak, of loneliness, all the things that you need as an adult in your emotional toolbox as an actor to truly paint well for an audience.”

The role of the Phantom is a physically, vocally and emotionally demanding one which requires the actor to wear extensive prosthetic makeup and have half their face obscured by a mask. “If you think about kids around Halloween, when they put a mask on, they behave in a way that they normally wouldn’t, because it’s not them. Their inhibitions go out the window because there’s no consequence,” Roxmouth remarked. “That mask, it changes you, it really does,” Roxmouth added, comparing it to being possessed. “The minute you hear that organ, I feel my DNA change, it’s the strangest thing,” he commented.

The role is a personal one for Roxmouth because he identifies with the Phantom. Roxmouth related how growing up, he was bullied for being overweight, and turned to music as an escape. Because his family couldn’t afford a piano, Roxmouth would play the piano in the school hall. “Some of my friends nicknamed me ‘the Phantom’ in high school because if you didn’t know where I was, nine times out of ten I would be in the school hall with my back to the door playing the piano,” Roxmouth recalled, adding “I was him, in a way…all I had was music.”

Roxmouth said that having played Raoul before playing the Phantom gave him a better understanding of what Christine goes through as a character, since she is the object of both their affections. “If you want to win a war, know your enemy. I know my enemy,” he quipped.

Said enemy is ostensibly the hero of the show, but after all, it’s called “The Phantom of the Opera” and not “Raoul”. This is something Matt Leisy, who plays Raoul, is aware of. “I like to think that I make it a harder decision for Christine and the audience,” he says with a smile. In a way, the deck is stacked against him, because audiences are conditioned to gravitate towards the dangerous Phantom, rather than Raoul, who comes off the safe option. “He has to work really hard to get Christine, it’s just a constant struggle,” Leisy commented.

Raoul is the heir to a family fortune and as such can come off as entitled and flippant, but seeing Christine again so many years later changes him. Leisy described Raoul as being a “bit of a playboy in the beginning, but he’s essentially a romantic.” He also must be a swashbuckling action hero, leaping in to save the day during the show’s climactic confrontation in the Phantom’s Lair. “He has to play the hero because he knows what he wants, and he wants to save Christine,” Leisy said, referencing the character’s Naval background in the novel.

While many audiences might gravitate to the Phantom, Raoul’s point of view makes sense – after all, the Phantom is a murderer. “They have a complicated relationship, I think it’s the music and they have a deep connection, but she overlooks a lot of red flags!” Leisy remarked of the romance between Christine and the Phantom.

Meghan Picerno, who plays Christine, did not grow up with the show because she had a classical music background rather than a musical theatre one. However, after seeing the show, she immediately understood the appeal of the role. “It is nothing less than an incredible, challenging and rewarding journey,” Picerno said of Christine’s arc.

Christine is a character who goes from having others around her and external forces define her, to eventually wresting back control over her own destiny. “To have the great opportunity to indeed start at a place where she willingly gives her power to those around her, then finds herself in the midst of that, and owns it and takes the power by the end, is so empowering and so magical and satisfying,” Picerno enthused.

Phantom is a show about darkness and light, with the Phantom representing the former and Raoul the latter. However, Picerno explains that there’s more to it than that. “Once you start to look deeper, indeed, they have such a mix,” she remarked. “Raoul is both light and dark, and so is the Phantom, and so is Christine. She wouldn’t be attracted to either of them if she didn’t have both [qualities] within her.”

Picerno compares the Phantom and Raoul using their respective signature songs, “Music of the Night” and “All I Ask of You”. “They’re satisfying different emotional aspects of her,” Picerno reasoned. “’Music of the Night’ is an awakening of her senses, her sexuality. ‘All I Ask of You’ is an awakening of her needs, her heart, her emotions, her wanting to be taken care of.”

One of Picerno’s favourite moments in the show is the ending, known as “Final Lair”. “There’s so much raw, true human emotion that’s in that scene and so much happens in that short amount of time,” Picerno said, adding “To see it and perform it, nothing can compare in my mind.”

With its potent mix of mesmerising music, a passionate love story, eye-catching stagecraft and a place in pop culture consciousness, it’s no wonder Phantom continues to entrance and seduce audiences more than 30 years after it first cast its spell.

Matilda the Musical review

MATILDA THE MUSICAL

21 February – 17 March
Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

One of the most iconic heroines in children’s literature took the West End and Broadway by storm, and now she brings her brand of adorable, inspiring defiance to the Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore.

Matilda the Musical is based on the beloved 1988 Roald Dahl book of the same name, which was adapted into a film directed by Danny DeVito in 1996. This musical features a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, with original direction by Matthew Warchus. The production was developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company and went on to win five Tony Awards and seven Olivier Awards. Matilda the Musical is currently tied with Hamilton as the musical with the most Olivier Awards.

The title character is a preternaturally gifted five-year-old whose talents go unnoticed by her callous and shallow parents, the Wormwoods (Stephen Jubber and Claire Taylor). Matilda finds solace in the library, where she regales the librarian Mrs Phelps (Nompumelelo Mayiyane) with stories.

Matilda begins primary school at Crunchem Hall. The school is presided over with an iron fist by the sadistic headmistress Miss Trunchbull (Ryan de Villiers), a child-hating former Olympic hammer-throwing champion. Matilda’s kindly form teacher Miss Honey (Bethany Dickson) recognises that Matilda is way ahead of her peers and wants to move her up to the Primary 5 class, something Trunchbull vehemently opposes. Matilda soon galvanises her fellow students and Miss Honey, leading a revolt in the school against Miss Trunchbull, unearthing startling secrets in the process.

The production that has arrived in Singapore is the International Tour, which originated in October 2018 in South Africa. The distinctive set design by Rob Howell, who also designed the costumes, has been retained and ingeniously adapted to tour. The set has a Scrabble tile motif, and the sometimes-messy, sometimes-garish, always-charming look fits into the show’s concept of a five-year-old’s view of the world. The show also features illusions designed by Paul Kieve, and a signature number in which actors on swings fly out over the audience.

On the surface, Matilda the Musical looks silly and over-the-top, but that exterior belies great depth and poignancy. This is a story about a misunderstood, unloved girl who stands up for herself, takes on the world and along the way, finally finds an adult or two who cares. The musical’s broad, sometimes rude humour and loud, over-the-top performances are very much in line with author Dahl’s sensibilities. The Crunchem Hall crest is a drawing of a child being hit over the head with a hammer – Dahl’s books often feature children facing off against grotesque adults, stepping into a cruel world and shaping it for themselves. Matilda is perhaps the best example of this in his bibliography.

The show’s signature songs “Naughty” and “When I Grow Up” convey a child’s defiance and wistfulness in elegant, honest terms. Minchin’s lyrics burst with Dahl-ian wit: Trunchbull sneeringly says of “the odour of rebellion”, “This headmistress/Finds this foul odifer-ous-ness/Wholly olfactorily insulting.” There are moments when the music plays up the chaos that surrounds Matilda, and other moments that are lyrical and quiet – the transition between these modes never feels abrupt or jarring.

The title role is shared by four young actors: Singaporean Sofia Poston, who played the role at our performance, and South Africans Lilla Fleischmann, Morgan Santo and Kitty Harris.

It must be incredibly daunting for anyone to get onstage in front of an audience of 2000 and perform, let alone for a nine-year-old. The role of Matilda is a demanding one that Poston tackles with remarkable confidence. She strikes the balance of portraying a character who’s precocious without being obnoxious. Of the four actresses playing Matilda, she is the youngest and physically the smallest – this enhances the ‘David and Goliath’ factor intended when Matilda faces off against Trunchbull. A tiny powerhouse who’s cute but not twee and who believably conveys an unbreakable fighting spirit, Poston has more than done Singapore proud as the country’s representative in the lead cast.

Ryan de Villiers is a magnificent Trunchbull, clearly relishing every second he’s onstage. The character’s costume creates a comically nightmarish figure that de Villiers captures with remarkable physicality. The role is typically played in drag, because casting a tall, physically-imposing man enhances the afore-mentioned David and Goliath element. De Villiers must perform gymnastics in his restrictive costume, which he does with delicious aplomb. Trunchbull is by design a cartoonish villain, but de Villiers still makes her utterly threatening and finds whatever thin sliver of soul is buried deep within her.

Bethany Dickson, who has been the leading lady in South African and touring productions of musicals like The Sound of Music, Singing in the Rain and Grease, plays Miss Honey with the gentleness and timidity one expects from the character. The bond between Miss Honey and Matilda is a key emotional component to the show, and one that Dickson must develop with four different young actresses. Miss Honey is the nurturing presence who finds her own voice when Matilda enters her classroom and her life, and some of the musical’s most touching moments are between Miss Honey and Matilda.

Stephen Jubber and Claire Taylor ham it way up as the Wormwoods, and are complemented by Kent Jeycocke as Mrs Wormwood’s dance partner Rudolpho. These are parents who are afraid that their child is too intelligent and reads too much – while many Singaporeans can relate to the ‘school is prison’ element of the show, this seems a touch more absurd. It’s all a piece of the musical’s heightened nature, and Jubber, Taylor and Jeycocke prove adept at physical comedy.

The standouts among Matilda’s schoolmates include Jack Fokkens as Bruce, Taylor Salgado as Lavender and Joshua LeClair as Nigel. At our performance, Amanda was played by Kitty Harris, one of the other Matildas, meaning each Matilda must also learn the part of Amanda. This reviewer was a touch dispirited to see the “floss” dance popularised by Backpack Kid/Russell Horning and later featured in the online game Fortnite make an appearance, but perhaps that’s just down to this reviewer’s own crustiness and resentment.

Matilda the Musical is a triumph as an adaptation and as a standalone piece of musical theatre that serves as a showcase for incredibly talented performers. It’s funny, moving and has its share of gasp-inducing set-pieces. It’s also a great opportunity for families to have post-show discussions about education, what it means to raise and nurture children, and growing up. It’s youth in revolt in the most enchanting way.

Jedd Jong

Photos courtesy of BASE Entertainment

Top of the Class: Matilda the Musical press call

TOP OF THE CLASS

Matilda the Musical takes Singapore audiences back to school

By Jedd Jong

A precocious young hero who starts a revolution against the cruel principal of her prison-like school: it’s a story that ignites something in every child. Matilda began life as a novel by celebrated children’s author Roald Dahl, first published in 1988. It was adapted into a radio play, a 1996 film directed by Danny Devito, and a blockbuster 2010 musical.

Matilda the Musical is one of the most-acclaimed stage productions in recent memory, winning seven Olivier awards in 2012 – the most ever won for a single production at the time. The show also won five Tony Awards, including best book.

Featuring a book by Dennis Kelly and music and lyrics by Tim Minchin, Matilda is a show that has captured the imagination of theatregoers and made many misty-eyed. The musical was originally directed by Matthew Warchus, developed by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and first staged at the RSC’s home, the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon. The show then moved to the Cambridge Theatre on the West End where it is still playing. A Broadway production ran from 2013 to 2017.

In addition to Roald Dahl’s enduring characters and Tim Minchin’s music and lyrics, audiences can also look forward to acrobatics, set pieces including a signature moment involving swings, and mystifying illusions designed by Paul Kieve.

The titular character is a five-year-old with a penchant for reading, a curiosity about the world and a mysterious, possibly supernatural power. Matilda is neglected by her shallow parents the Wormwoods, who dismiss her because she’s a girl. She finds solace in the library, enchanting the librarian Mrs Phelps with her talent for storytelling.

Matilda is enrolled in Crunchem Hall Primary School, where she impresses the kind teacher Miss Honey. However, Matilda earns the ire of the cruel headteacher Miss Trunchbull. Though she is small in stature, Matilda finds a power within her, galvanising the school in an uprising against the treacherous Trunchbull.

At the press call, the numbers “Naughty”, “When I Grow Up” and “Revolting Children” were performed for the media.

“This is exactly how I would expect the Royal Shakespeare Company to create a musical,” resident director Natalie Gilhome said. It’s her job to ensure the production stays true to the vision of original director Warchus. “It’s so intelligent, it’s so multi-layered so that adults get as much out of it as children get,” Gilhome enthused. “It’s so beautifully crafted as a piece that I think that’s a lot to do with the history of the RSC and the creatives that put it together.”

From left: Lilla Fleischman, Morgan Santo, Kitty Harris and Sofia Poston

This production, presented by BASE Entertainment and Lunchbox Theatrical, is the International Tour which was first staged in South Africa in October 2018. The title role is shared by four girls: Singaporean Sofia Poston and South Africans Lilla Fleischmann, Morgan Santo, and Kitty Harris, who are nine, 14, 11 and 10-years-old respectively.

Ryan de Villiers stars opposite the girls playing Matilda as Trunchbull, who lives to torment children and who focuses her resentment on the new star pupil. The role is typically played in drag, with taller, physically-imposing actors cast to emphasise the David-and-Goliath dynamic between Matilda and Trunchbull.

“I think it’s so much fun to play the bad guy,” de Villiers said. “I don’t think I’m the bad guy in real life, so getting to play someone who’s so opposite to who I am is so much fun.”

The character’s costume, which also includes a hunchback prosthetic, helps de Villiers get into Trunchbull’s headspace and plays up the character’s severity. “Everything is quite restrictive, not so that I can’t sing or speak, but it definitely helps with the physicality,” de Villiers explained.

Part of Trunchbull’s back-story is that she was an Olympic-level hammer thrower. She exhibits sheer physical strength, coupled with an unyielding demeanour. “Her uprightness and rigidity are very important to the character,” de Villiers said. “Posture-wise, she has really, really good posture, something I don’t always have. The way she walks is very calculated as well – everything about her is very calculated, until of course she loses it, then things go a little bit haywire,” de Villiers added with a smile.

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From left: Bethany Dickson (Miss Honey), Nompumelelo Mayiyane (Mrs Phelps) and Ryan de Villiers (Miss Trunchbull)

Thankfully, de Villiers does not agree with his character’s disciplinary methods. De Villiers stated that teachers should never resort to physical violence when dealing with their charges, adding “Even berating a child or speaking down at a child, it’s not good for their self-confidence and how they might end up in the future. It’s the teacher’s responsibility to find nice ways to deal with children.”

Trunchbull hates Matilda, but de Villiers has nothing admiration for his young co-stars. “They are all so professional, so wonderful, so talented, so it’s really inspiring to watch them onstage,” he enthused. De Villiers admitted that he does enjoying playing the ridiculous cruelty that Trunchbull enacts towards Matilda and the other students, saying “It really is a lot of fun on stage shouting at them and seeing their reactions.”

Musical director Louis Zurnamer was last in Singapore with the touring production of Evita. Describing the music of Matilda, Zurnamer said that unlike the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Minchin’s compositions are “almost deliciously devoid of very long lyrical melodic lines.” Zurnamer described the incidental music by orchestrator Chris Nightingale as “something like Amélie, like French film music.”

Zurnamer leads the eight-piece band which plays live in the orchestra pit during every performance. “We have a cello and a bass clarinet, instruments that bring a very specific colour to the show as well,” Zurnamer revealed, describing that colour as a darkness and maturity to the story, told from a child’s perspective. Speaking about how the music of Matilda stands out in the landscape of classic and contemporary musicals, Zurnamer said “It doesn’t sound like Jason Robert Brown or Stephen Schwartz, it’s a new language and it’s so divine. My toes curl with delight every time I hear it, it’s so lovely.”

If there’s one physical part of the set that gets a lot of attention, it’s the swings suspended from the ceiling. One of the major challenges in developing a touring version of Matilda was in engineering swings that would work the way the swings in the West End production do, but which can also easily be installed and removed in theatres.

The swings feature in the wistful number “When I Grow Up”. “It’s the one number where you get to see this beautiful fantasy,” Gilholme said, adding that “there’s a purity that sometimes we lose when we grow up, so it’s so nice to see that childlike perception of what life is as adults.”

“The swings are probably one of the most impressive parts of the show, and something that we take very seriously as we have kids on them and cast members flying out over the audience,” stage manager Peter Barnett said during our backstage tour. “We double-check and triple-check these and run them every single day,” he said, adding that there are hidden safety measures in the swing seats.

Audiences can enter the foreboding gates of Crunchem Hall and witness Matilda’s rousing struggle for justice when they watch Matilda the Musical, which runs from 21 February to 17 March at the Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands. Tickets start from $68 (excluding $4 booking fee). Please visit https://www.marinabaysands.com/entertainment/shows/matilda-the-musical.html for more information and to purchase tickets.

Photos by Jedd Jong 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kinky Boots Musical review

KINKY BOOTS

5 – 14 October
Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in someone’s shoes – or, as it were, their patent leather stiletto boots. Kinky Boots, the musical about how changing your mind can change the world, has arrived in Singapore, and audiences are getting ready to say “yeah!”

Kinky Boots is based on the 2005 film starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Joel Edgerton, which was in turn loosely inspired by the true story of the W.J. Brooks Shoe Company in Northamptonshire. 80s rock icon Cyndi Lauper wrote the music and lyrics, her first time composing a musical, with Harvey Fierstein supplying the book.

After tryouts in Chicago in 2012, the show debuted on Broadway the next year and proceeded to win big at the Tony Awards, clinching prizes including Best Musical and Best Original Score. The Broadway and West End productions are still running. This production is the U.S. national touring company, who have been travelling around the states since September 2017, and who visited three cities in China in July 2018 before the Singapore, uh, leg of their tour.

The show is mostly set at the Price and Son shoe factory in Northampton. Charlie Price (Lance Bordelon) has just inherited the business from his father, and finds himself at a crossroads, on the brink of having to shut down the factory and fire workers he’s known all his life. A chance encounter with the fabulous drag queen Lola (Jos N. Banks) sets Charlie on a new course. Charlie learns that the boots on Lola’s heels keep snapping off, because she is wearing shoes not designed to support the weight of a man.

With a push from factory worker Lauren (Sydney Patrick), who is nursing a crush on Charlie even though he’s engaged to Nicola (Hayley Lampart), Charlie decides that from here on out, Price and Son will be serving a ‘niche market’. Some of the workers, especially the boorish Don (Adam Du Plessis), baulk at Lola and her troupe of drag queens, known as ‘the Angels’. The unlikely partners of Charlie and Lola realise that what they have in common is stronger than what they don’t and set about designing and manufacturing a range of boots to showcase at the Milan International Shoe Exhibition.

Kinky Boots has often been described as a feel-good musical, and it fits that description in the best way. Some shows that strive to be life-affirming and inspiring can come off as schmaltzy or hollow, but Kinky Boots does have something to say, and is irrepressibly joyous as it shouts its message of acceptance from the rooftops. The show touches on gender roles and identity features a clash of cultures between more conservative working-class people and the LGBT+ community.

In its plot and characters, the adaptation is very faithful to the film. While it’s flashy and energetic, Kinky Boots is also a gentle show, and serves as a great entry-level experience for audiences who might not understand or haven’t gotten into drag culture. It’s certainly less intimidating than going to a full-on drag club for the first time might be, and as such is a great gateway. There has been some debate about the mainstreaming of drag, which was once something only a marginalised community partook in, but the appreciation and enjoyment of the art form can go a long way in fostering understanding between people who seem outwardly different.

Some of the show’s songs are disco-tinged numbers that one could picture Lauper herself performing, and several are designed to get everyone in the audience tapping their toes and clapping along. There’s an infectiousness to the Act One closer “Everybody Say Yeah”, and to the rousing finale “Just Be”. However, there are also more traditional Broadway show-stoppers in which the characters wear their hearts on their sleeves and belt out their feelings, like “Not My Father’s Son”, “Hold Me in Your Heart” and “Soul of a Man”.

The setting of a shoe factory might seem drab, but there’s a cleverness to David Rockwell’s scenic design which sprinkles just a bit of magic dust on a worn-in working class environment. Subtle changes in Kenneth Posner’s lighting design set the mood, and at one point, the conveyor belt splits apart into a multi-section treadmill that the performers dance and do acrobatics on. The costumes by Gregg Barnes are stars in their own right; our audience cheered and clapped each time Lola or the Angels strutted onstage in a new get-up.

Bordelon embodies the ‘straight man’ (in every sense) archetype to a tee, playing a character who is hapless but a good distance from being a bumbling idiot. Just like every performer in the show, Bordelon moves well, though he only really gets to showcase this in the very last number. He hits all the high notes but did sound a little bit nasally at our performance, perhaps as the result of a cold.

Banks eats the Lola role up with great aplomb. Just like one must while dancing in those heels, he finds the ideal balance, such that Lola is always the centre of attention but never obnoxiously so. Every gesture, step, flip of the hair that Lola does, it all informs her character and helps the audience learn who she is. During the backstage tour, we were told that on this production, Banks and all the actors playing the Angels do their own makeup. Lola’s duet with Charlie, “Not My Father’s Son”, is easily the show’s most emotional moment, with her soaring power ballad “Hold Me in Your Heart” coming in a close second.

The Angels, played by Brandon Alberto, Jordan Archibald, Eric Stanton Betts, Derek Brazeau, Ernest Terrelle Williams and Philip Stock, pull off impressive acrobatics and show off some spectacularly toned abs and thighs.

The petite Patrick proves quite the firecracker, throwing every fibre of her being into “The History of Wrong Guys”, which is one of the show’s funniest numbers. The Lauren character does fall a little too neatly into the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ archetype, but Patrick has fun with it, over-the-top accent and all.

The other featured female role is Charlie’s demanding fiancé Nicola, who is the nominal antagonist. Some might say that the show, as the movie did before it, conflates a woman being ambitious with being pushy, but couples arguing over one party’s business decisions is something that happens often in real life.

Kinky Boots is a crowd-pleaser that is anything but pedestrian. Even though it does follow certain templates used by other musicals before, including the English working-class settings that inspired Billy Elliot and The Full Monty, Kinky Boots has a loveable personality all its own. Speed-strut, don’t walk, to the Sands Theatre now.

Jedd Jong

Photos: Sébastien Tessier/Kinky Boots

Now playing at the Marina Bay Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands Singapore. Tickets start from $65 (excluding $4 booking fee). Please visit the Marina Bay Sands site for tickets and more information.

There is a 16 and above advisory (some mature content)

Strut Your Stuff: Kinky Boots musical press call

STRUT YOUR STUFF

The cast and creatives of Kinky Boots discuss the award-winning musical, making its way to Singapore for the first time

By Jedd Jong

From 5 – 14 October 2018, the stage of the Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands Theatre will be transformed into the assembly line of the Price and Son Shoe Factory. This is the main setting of the musical Kinky Boots, adapted from the 2005 film of the same name.  The musical was first staged in Chicago in 2012 and went on to be a smash hit on Broadway and the West End, winning awards including Best Musical and Best Original Score Tony Awards. The show boasts music and lyrics by rock star Cyndi Lauper and a book by Harvey Fierstein.

Kinky Boots is set in Northampton, England, where Charlie Price has just inherited a shoe factory from his father. Without any ongoing contracts, the factory is about to be shut down, and Charlie finds himself at an impasse. A chance encounter with the flamboyant, assertive drag queen Lola changes both their lives. Charlie learns that the heels on Lola’s boots keep snapping, because the boots Lola wears weren’t designed to withstand a man’s weight. Charlie decides to make boots for Lola and her troupe of drag performers, changing the factory’s output from men’s dress shoes to “two-and-a-half feet of irresistible, tubular sex”. Charlie and Lola form an unconventional partnership, with the goal to debut a collection of boots at the prestigious Milan International Shoe Exhibition.

This production has gone to U.S. states including Philadelphia, Arizona, Colorado, California and Vermont since September 2017. From June to August, the production then toured China, with stops in Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing. After its Singapore stint, the tour will return to the U.S., visiting states including Kentucky, Alabama, Florida, Indiana and Tennessee.

inSing spoke to members of the cast and crew about their experience being on the road with Kinky Boots. Lance Bordelon stars as Charlie, but was not available to speak to the media at the press call. As the actor playing Lola, Jos N. Banks has most of the spotlight on him. Banks described the show as being “about love and acceptance” and said that’s why it’s been received so well.

Most of Lola’s musical numbers, especially her introductory song Land of Lola, are as bold and flashy as the drag queen herself. However, Banks’ favourite moment in the show is the song Not My Father’s Son, which showcases Lola at her most vulnerable, recalling the expectations placed on her growing up by her father. “It’s the first time in the show that the audience really gets to connect with Lola because it’s pared down,” Banks said, adding “you don’t see the big wig and costumes, you see Lola as a person, and that’s the moment you instantly connect with the audience.” The song starts off with just the piano and Banks’ voice. “There’s something very beautiful and I think there’s something very remarkable in the silence of it all,” he concluded.

Company manager Andrew Terlizzi called the show “a story that reaches everybody.” On the effect the show has had on audiences, he said “Chinese audiences who have never done drag performances themselves were inspired to come in full drag to see the show.” Terlizzi said the show had “opened [audiences’] eyes that they can be who they are”.

Wardrobe supervisor Michael Lavin oversees the show’s costumes, including those all-important boots. “We have a lot of very specific items that have to be maintained to very specific directions,” Lavin noted, adding that finding local suppliers and replacement parts when the show is on tour can be a challenge.

Dancing in said boots can seem like a formidable feat, but the performers in Kinky Boots make it look easy. “After a couple of weeks, you get used to it,” Philip Stock, who plays one of Lola’s Angels, told us. “There’s a different centre of gravity, you have to engage your core in a way you wouldn’t normally, but once you figure all that out, it’s normal,” he remarked.

Stock’s fellow Angel, Derek Brazeau, reiterated the show’s message: “just be who you want to be.” “All of us having differences is what makes us human. We’re not perfect, and I think that’s what makes us beautiful,” Brazeau said.

We spoke to the musical’s leading ladies Sydney Patrick and Hayley Lampart, who play Lauren and Nicola respectively. Lauren is a factory worker at Price and Son who finds herself falling for Charlie, but there’s a complication: Charlie’s already engaged to Nicola, who can be demanding and has grown frustrated with Charlie’s mission to make boots for drag queens.

Patrick cited Everybody Say Yeah, the closing number of Act One, as her favourite part of the show. “That’s when we decide as a factory that we’re gonna go through with the plan,” Patrick said, describing the number as “just a party onstage and everyone’s dancing on the factory pieces”. The conveyor belt on the factory floor splits apart, forming individual treadmills that the factory workers dance on. “It’s scary in the beginning when you’re learning it,” Patrick said of dancing on the treadmill. “We had a gymnastics day, when everyone was learning how to flip and stuff. Now, it’s normal. It’s just fun as this point.”

Patrick recalled how her mother introduced her to the film when Patrick was a teenager. my Mum said ‘I saw this cool independent British film’ – my Mum’s all into independent films. She sat me down and made me watch it with her. It’s so amazing, and many years later, I was like ‘there’s this musical called Kinky Boots’ and she said ‘that’s the movie I showed you!’” She told us that her parents were excited and proud to see her join the cast of the show, and would travel to watch the show as it went to different locales.

Lampart recalled watching the original Broadway production while she was in college in New York City. “I went out and saw it right away because it was such a hit immediately,” she said. “Billy Porter and Stark [Sands], it was the dream cast. Annaleigh Ashford, they were so good, Lena Hall.  When I saw it, I remember being like ‘oh my god, this would be so cool to be in,’ and it’s so crazy that it happened! Here I am, in Singapore.”

Both Patrick and Lampart have performed on cruise lines: Patrick on Disney Cruises and Lampart on Norwegian Cruise Lines. Patrick described herself as a “travel addict” and enjoyed visiting the different ports of call, but there are challenges to working on a cruise ship too. They touched on the difficulty of keeping in contact with the outside world and that the nature of a cruise is that time zones keep getting crossed.

“It’s such a fast-paced life and I really like that, I think I’m very adaptable because of that,” Lampart said of working as an entertainer on a cruise ship.

The Lauren character’s solo number is a wistful lament called The History of Wrong Guys, in which she reflects on her dating past and realises she’s falling for Charlie. When asked to offer romantic advice to those who seem to keep ending up with wrong guys (and/or gals), Patrick offered “If you are authentically you, you’ll attract someone who loves you, so you don’t have to try, you don’t have to try and prove anything to anyone. I think that’s probably the best lesson to do when you’re looking for your Mr or Mrs Right”.

The life of a touring theatre performer can be an arduous one, involving eight performances a week, moving from city to city, and long periods spent away from home. However, it is one that Patrick and Lampart find rewarding.

“I think we live in a world that can be very disconnected and very impersonal because of technology, texting and social media,” Patrick said. “Hopefully people who come to see theatre witness raw emotion that they can connect with and can think ‘I’m not alone’ or ‘I’ve had that experience before’ and they can open their hearts and minds to other people’s stories.”

Lampart remarked that shows like Kinky Boots “don’t come often,” and that the show’s directors told the cast as much. “They said this show makes such an impact on people and when you walk offstage every night after the finale, you just feel the feeling of maybe, hopefully changing someone’s perspective. It’s such an amazing feeling,” she enthused.

Tickets start at $65 (not including $4 booking fee) for D Reserve Seats. Tickets are available here.