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.

Clockwork Fantasy: Cirque du Soleil’s KURIOS – Cabinet of Curiosities press call

Clockwork Fantasy: KURIOS press call

inSing peeks into the Cabinet of Curiosities at Cirque du Soleil’s KURIOS

By Jedd Jong

Beneath the grey-and-white grand chapiteau (big top) situated on Bayfront Avenue lies a world of wonders that comes alive during each performance of KURIOS – Cabinet of Curiosities. KURIOS is the 35th show produced by Quebecois entertainment company Cirque du Soleil, the world’s largest theatrical producer.

Cirque du Soleil has become known for its contemporary circus productions that put a spin on traditional circus acts by combining them with storytelling, elaborate costumes and sets, theming and special effects.

Photo credit: © Martin Girard shootstudio.ca

KURIOS takes inspiration from the steampunk genre of science fiction and is set during the turn of the century in an alternate past. The show is about a character known as the Seeker, who opens a portal to a dimension called the Valley of the Possible Impossibles. This is where the most outlandish and imaginative ideas reside. The otherworldly characters upend the way the Seeker sees the world, inspiring him with their incredible abilities.

inSing was at the press call ahead of the show’s opening for a limited engagement in Singapore. Since its debut in 2014, KURIOS has toured North America, and Japan, where the company spent one-and-a-half years before taking the show to Singapore. After its month-long engagement here, KURIOS will move on to Australia.

Writer-director Michel Laprise. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

KURIOS is written and directed by Michel Laprise, who set out to create something unlike any other Cirque show before. “We wanted to do something different, but true to the core of the values of Cirque du Soleil, what we love,” Laprise told the press. Laprise joined Cirque du Soleil in 2000, spending five years as a talent scout before being appointed Special Events Designer. He collaborated with Madonna on her Super Bowl XLVI Halftime show, before going on to direct the pop diva’s MDNA tour.

In devising the show, Laprise and his team drew up a list of what previous Cirque shows had done out of necessity and out of convenience. “We kept what we do out of necessity, but everything else, we challenged ourselves to transform it,” he declared. KURIOS has a lower stage than the company’s other touring shows, meaning the performers are closer to eye level with the audience, creating more of a connection between them.

Photo credit: © Martin Girard shootstudio.ca

Speaking about the climate that led to the creation of KURIOS, Laprise said “We were in a very bizarre mood in 2012-2013, people were sad. I thought ‘why are we sad? We live in abundance!’ People were talking as if we were living in hell.” Laprise decided to create a show that would make audiences feel good and realise how lucky they are. “After the audience leaves the big top, they will think ‘wow, everything is possible’,” Laprise mused.

Head of Wardrobe: Julie Desimone. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

To create the enchanted Cabinet of Curiosities which comes alive in KURIOS, more than a hundred costumes and 426 props are used in the show. The costumes are designed by Philippe Guillotel, and it falls to Head of Wardrobe Julie Desimone to, in her own words, “maintain the integrity of the costumes as if every night is opening night.”

Mathieu Hubener as Mr Microcosmos. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

“You want to keep it beautiful, you want to keep it creative, and it also has to really be safe and it has to be comfortable,” Desimone stated. Her favourite costume in KURIOS is that of Mr Microcosmos, a fastidious figure who represents technological progress. “It’s a challenge for my department because it’s not just a costume, it’s not just a jacket and a tie, it is a prop. It is a very large, foam, fiberglass, roughly 30-pound (13.6 kg) prop,” she said of Mr Microcosmos’ outfit. It took a team of propmakers approximately 250 hours to build Mr Microcosmos’ belly, which opens up to reveal several surprises.

The amount of moving parts in the show keeps Desimone very busy. “We do a lot of maintenance every day. We have a full team of people that just do maintenance for hours. By the time the show comes, what we’re putting on stage has been looked at and gone through many, many hands,” she said.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

While there are unique challenges to being the Head of Wardrobe at a show like KURIOS, Desimone described it as “the best job in the world.” She called the cast “incredible,” adding “When you think about what they do on a daily basis, you have to have that energy, you have to have a little bit of youth, and have to be ready to roll with the punches.” Desimone said of her cohorts, “we all have a common thread, we’re all really adaptable, we like to change, and we like to explore. We’re all very adventurous.”

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

One of the acts we watched during the press call was the Aerial Bicycle act performed by French acrobat Anne Weissbecker. The typical aerial hoop used in acrobatic performances is replaced by a bicycle, which Weissbecker rides onstage. The bicycle then takes to the air, with Weissbecker hanging beneath it.

Anne Weissbecker and Mathieu Hubener. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

When asked what the hardest part of the act is, Weissbecker replied that it’s “To make it look easy”. She pointed out that she must maintain the right speed and the perfect amount of tension on the rope so the take off is smooth and she doesn’t swing too far out from the ring. “You have to make people dream, so you have to hide what is difficult,” Weissbecker said, voicing a sentiment that many of her fellow performers probably share.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Weissbecker began studying circus arts at the age of ten, eventually overcoming her biggest fear. “I didn’t like trapeze because I was afraid of heights. It was not high, it was probably about one metre, but I felt it was so high. I get used to it, with training, you can push yourself and really have fun doing what you love,” she enthused.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

The other act we saw was the Banquine, a tumbling act performed by 13 acrobats. The act was previously featured in Cirque’s Quidam and is something Laprise specifically wanted as part of KURIOS.

Ekaterina Evdokimova and Kirill Tyurganov. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Kirill Tyurganov, who was a member of the Russian Sports Acrobatics Team before joining Cirque du Soleil, is one of the Banquine performers. “For me, this act is about breaking limits and going [beyond] the edges,” Tyurganov said. “We don’t have any additional equipment, we don’t have any props on stage, it’s all about skills and reactions.”

Tyurganov said his background as a professional athlete prepared him for the world of Cirque, but there was still a lot to learn. “When you come to Montreal, to international headquarters of Cirque du Soleil, you really dive deep into the atmosphere of creation, of something crazy and sometimes it’s mad,” he recalled.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Tyurganov has taken his wife and two young children with him on the road, describing it as an extended vacation for them. He was full of praise for Singapore, declaring “As soon as I arrived, it was like ‘oh my god, the future is coming’.” He expressed an admiration for “the mixture of cultures, food, people,” calling it “wonderful”. Tyurganov described his visit to Gardens by the Bay as “like living in Avatar”.

KURIOS features a score by French film composer Raphaël Beau, which is performed live every night. The band is led by Marc Sohier, who plays the bass guitar and double bass. “The role of the music is to support the image, the action, with the right intensity, the right volume,” Sohier said.

Marc Sohier and Eirini Tornesaki. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

The star of the band is Greek vocalist Eirini Tornesaki, who portrays the Street Singer. She described the show’s sound as “electro-swing”, and said she appreciates being part of “a big group of people working all together for the same goal, to deliver one show.” Tornesaki continued, “Sometimes when I step back and look at that, I feel very privileged to be part of such a beautiful group that puts so much energy and effort and professionalism to make this show happen.”

Rachel Lancaster, who has a background as a dance artist, choreographer and director, is the show’s resident artistic director. She voiced her hope that the show serves as more than mere escapism, saying “more than just the two-and-a-half hours that you spend watching the show or the journey emotionally that you’re taken on, it should also be with you for days or months or years.”

Some of the cast and creatives of KURIOS. Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Lancaster gave praise to the team of people from many disciplines who work on the show, saying she finds fulfilment in “the small things we achieve every day.” “My job is to facilitate and help to make them happen, and when they reach their goals, I’m incredibly proud, but it’s all of their hard work,” she said of the many artists and technicians who help make KURIOS happen.

Photo credit: Jedd Jong

Focusing on the theatrical presentation aspect of KURIOS, Lancaster said “That’s the beauty of theatricality, how to create something that touches the audience and takes them on this journey out of nothing sometimes.” She remarked that “the best theatrical moments are usually the simplest,” stating “You can throw all the bells and whistles and light and magic at things, but if on a basic theatrical level it doesn’t work, you can masquerade, but if you really want to touch people, it’s got to be real.”

KURIOS is turning fantasy into reality from July 5 to August 4 2019 at the Big Top at Bayfront Avenue. Tickets start from $95 (excluding $4 booking fee) and can be bought here: https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/kurios0819

 

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.

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