Monday, February 27, 2006

Theater Review : Puteri Gunung Ledang – The Musical at Istana Budaya

(image curtesy of PGL-TM Official Website)

Without a doubt, "Puteri Gunung Ledang – The Musical" was the hottest thing to hit the local arts scene in February 2006. The hype surrounding this production was already causing a buzz long before the curtains were first raised on opening night on the 7th of February. People were excited at the prospect of seeing how the story form the award-wining feature film translated into a stage musical which had not been done before in recent history. The choice of a non-local Malaysian as the male lead on stage replacing the original actor from the feature film only added to the buzz that surrounded this production. When all is said and done, I have to say that all the hype and buzz surrounding “Puteri Gunung Ledang – The Musical” (PGL-TM) was well deserved indeed.

I finally got the chance to watch the show for myself last Saturday after weeks of anticipation. Given what was written by the other bloggers who went to see it much earlier in her run, PGL-TM was something that I was not going to let slip me by without at least trying to get in a sitting of the show. Fortune smiled on me this time as my mother, who works at the Institut Jantung Negara (National Heart Institute), was able to secure 5 tickets for the 25th February charity show. Not only were we going to be able to enjoy the show but we also got the chance to do our bit for a good cause as the proceeds from that show went to National Heart Institute Charity Foundation. Of course this meant that the ticket prices for the night was a bit higher that the other nights so we were only able to afford the tickets for the upper tier seats.

We reached Istana Budaya at about 8:00pm and the place was already packed with the local who’s who and celebrities. I wasn’t really good celeb-spotting so I can’t really say who was there but there were some fellow bloggers whom I recognize from previous meetings in attendance. The main VIP for the night was the Deputy Prime Minister and his wife who were the main guests for this charity performance. I was told that the price for a ticket to be seated where the VIPs were seated came to about RM1000 a pop. Our tickets, high up in the nosebleed sections where the common people were, cost about RM60 per ticket instead. Even with those prices, I remembered seeing that most of the seats were filled by a variety of people both local and foreign.

The show started off quite on time at 8:30pm with what I think was the overture piece. At least I think that it was suppose to be although I thought that the piece of musical score that they choose as the overture was a bit too low key and was not what I expected of an overture. I also felt that the so-called overture went on a bit too long but then again it could be because the piece itself was dragging and unexciting to begin with. The should have went with a medley of song highlights if they wanted to setup an overture before they started the show proper.

Act 1 of the performance dealt with the events that happened in the Javanese kingdom of Majapahit where the titular princess first met Hang Tuah and fell in love with the dashing nobleman. True to the setting, the costumes and the stage sets were brilliantly made up with clear influence of the Javanese culture. The actors even adopted Javanese inflection in their speech patterns (for most of the time) as well as stiff body poses not unlike those found on Javanese art pieces. I was particularly impressed with how the modular components of the tiered structures used as stage sets were combined to create stylish representations of the exterior of the keraton, stupa and cliff’s edge. Considering that they were using the same pieces almost all the time during this act, it was interesting to see how many configurations that they came up with. Add to that the beautifully designed lightscape that highlighted every action on stage, it was a veritable visual feast to delight in.

The second act, where the action left Majapahit and centered in Melaka, was no less energetic and exciting. Compared to the abundance of browns and earth tones from the Majapahit setting, the colors of the costumes and lighting scheme for scenes set in Melaka was in a word vibrant. From the royal yellow used in the Sultan’s costume down to the colorful baju kurung and baju melayu that the ensemble wore, it was as if a Citrawarna parade had stopped by on stage. While this was wonderful to see on stage, it made trying to pick out the main players from the crowd was a bit harder than it was in the first act. This was particularly a challenge in Act 2 when they had a whole crowd on stage more often than in the previous act.

It was also during the second act where the audience got to see what has to be the biggest and most awe-inspiring piece of the stage set used. I’ve seen pictures of the set they used to represent the main gates of the palace of Melaka but the photos did little justice to this wonderful work. It was so intricately made and such a beautiful piece of set that it would not look out of place in a real palace today. This breathtaking masterpiece of set design was worth it’s weight in gold when it was used to filter the lights beautifully during a tender scene involving Hang Tuah in front of the gates of the palace. Unlike the multi-tiered sets that was reused several times during the show, we only got to see this wonderful piece of set design twice in the second set. It was almost criminal not being able to see it a few more times.

From the first note of ensemble performance of the opening tune, “Satu Hari Nanti” , it was clear that I was in for an aural surprise. I had heard about how hum-worthy the songs from this show was but I was not prepared with how good they really were. It was very close in quality to what I would have expected to come from a Broadway show based on the very few Broadway shows that I have seen/heard before. There were times, especially during the first act involving the princess’s solo performance, that the musical score felt as it would have fitted well in a Disney produced animated feature. Even with visions of “Puteri Gunung Ledang – The Disney Animated Feature” running around my head, it did not detract from the fact how wonderful the marriage of traditional music combined with Western stage musical sensibility turned out. I seriously believe that the soundtrack for this musical would sell very well as it had so many memorable tunes to choose from that was hard to single out one to be a favorite. I also personally feel that they should give extra tips to the percussion section in last night’s performance as they really beat the heck out of those drums last night.

As the titular princess, Tiara Jacquelina reprised her role from the original feature film that this musical was based on. I have to say that for a non-singer, she managed to impress me with her vocal skills. While there were parts in her performance that night where she seemed to overreach her vocal abilities, she managed to cover it beautifully and deliver a sterling performance befitting the grand event. No less impressive was her opposite, Stephen Rahman-Hughes as Datuk Laksmana Hang Tuah, who brought with him all the skills that he learnt on the stages of West End to our local shores. I guess that the gamble to bring in an outsider to this production was a gamble that paid off handsomely despite the initial doubts. While his vocal skills in delivering the goods in the tunes were beyond reproach, Stephen was still at times sounded awkward and emotionally distant when delivering his lines but I don’t think that it was at the level that the other bloggers remarked on during the second show of the run. I guess that he kept improving since that show and now was more comfortable with the lines in a language not really his own.

A.C. Mizal as the ruler of Majapahit deserved the high praise heap on him for his breakout performance as the autocratic ruler prone to outburst of anger. Given his background first as a boyband singer and clownish characters in both his TV and feature film outings, his turn as the dynamic king of Majapahit was nothing less than an eye opener to the level of untapped talent for the stage that he possessed. I hope that his stage debut in this musical would inspire him to pursue more opportunities on the stage playing more serious characters. On the other end of the experience spectrum, Sukania Venugopal as Puteri’s nanny, Bayan, was a wonderful study in the quiet strength and loyalty to her ward. Always with a measured gesture, her Bayan was the pillar of strength that the Puteri depended upon as she began to discover the stirring of love. It was particularly heartbreaking to watch her suicide scene and hearing her voice break with anguish at her fate after she stayed behind to protect the princess from the wrath of the King. That particular scene was the most memorable one for me of all the scenes in the show.

Despite his young age, six-year-old Mohammed Afif Halim as the crown prince Raja Ahmad was simply adorable to watch. Unlike what was written about his debut in the beginning of the run, Afif was a bundle of adorable energy during the performance that I saw. To the clear delight of the audience he was practically jumping all over the stage after practically bounding several stairs at once in front of the Melaka gates set when we first meet this young actor. The role of the father, the Sultan of Melaka, was also played by another alum of the original feature film presentation. Instead of reproducing his celluloid performance on stage, Adlin Aman Ramlie played with another facet of the character’s personality. Having not seen the original feature film before, I cannot at this point say how much the two performance differ but it was serviceable for this occasion.

Of all the main characters that I’ve highlighted, I had the most problem with Adlin’s Sultan Mahmud of Melaka. I had trouble overlooking the way that he seem to rush to deliver his spoken dialog in such a clipped manner that it felt that he was impatient with everyone around him. If this was deliberate then kudos to him for making the Sultan of Melaka sound like he would rather be anywhere but here. I also had a bit of a problem with the big number involving the Sultan and his ensemble. While it was enjoyable to watch and listen to, the feel of that particular section of the score was slightly off-kilter to the tonal feel that both preceded and proceeded “Titah Sultan”. I would have liked to have a more menacing Sultan lording over his subjects as he performed the same song in this part of the performance rather than a “Saturday Night Fever” dancing wannabe. The choice of the Sultan breaking out in dance steps here was a sharp contrast from the more regal bearing of the King of Majapahit during his musical numbers. While it was fun to watch Adlin play off the energy of his performance, it felt a little out of place with the tone of rest of the story.

Another item that was slightly disappointing to me was how the production team seemed to have neglected to check how the way they blocked the scene would play out from different angles in the seating areas. There were more than a few times that people in the cheap seats in the nosebleed section lost track of the characters as they moved downstage towards the orchestral pit. This happened most notably during the Melaka harbor scenes when hardly anyone in the seats near where I sat could see what was happening downstage. The worse example of this was during the scene when both Puteri and Hang Tuah was reunited at the waterfalls of Gunung Ledang. For some unexplained reason, both actors choose to stand to the left of the stage on top of the high set ensuring that they would be blocked by the left stage speaker banks to most of the people sitting on the left side of the third tier section. For most of us, it was five minutes at looking just at their feet and hearing what they were saying. I wished that the production team had taken this in consideration when they initially planned that scene.

I had hoped to be able to buy the soundtrack to the show the night that I went from my past experience with the previous musical show that I saw at Istana Budaya a few years back. I was fairly disappointed to find out that they did not have it for sale yet but was pushing the single they released a few weeks back instead. It was also disheartening that the person selling the merchandise had no idea when the soundtrack was due and what was even more appalling was that this particular person didn’t know which song was on the single that he was selling. It was as if they took someone from the street and told them to just push the merchandise. This was definitely not the way to successfully market the merchandise commemorating this special event.

Despite the few low points of my experience, “Puteri Gunung Ledang – The Musical” was everything that everyone said and then some. It was clearly of an international caliber and level in both production and performance. A big hand should be given to all involved in bringing this wonderful performance to life. I hope that they would consider staging the show again sometime in the future so that more people could enjoy it. As it is the show’s sell-out run has been extended until the end of the month due to popular demand so it is clear that people are willing to come and watch it. Until they stage it again, if they ever decide to, lets have the soundtrack and DVD presentation out soon so all Malaysian could share the magic that was this presentation of “Puteri Gunung Ledang – The Musical”


akihisa said...

You know what?! I always have this impression that theater is for artsy people. With artsy, I mean boring. ;p And I thought I wouldn't have the required degree of sophistication to fully appreciate it. I would never imagined myself to be theater-goer. But, I do wanna check it out after hearing your review.

Nickxandar said...

Unfortunately for those who missed it, PGL-TM completed it's sucessful run last 28th Feb. There have been rumours that one of the stangings was taped and would be released in a DVD format so keep an eye out for that. The original soundtrack should also be released soon if all goes to plan.

I have the same impression about the local theater scene as you but I guess it's just because the whole thing is still a novelty in Malaysia. Cheaper tickets and more "mainstream" plays would help make the scene less intimidating to newbies like us.

ling said...

you know what? I was sitting at the cheap seats as well and man were the people pissed when we could only see their legs.

I mean come on!

we also had a brief moment where the stupid blue lights was shone directly to our face.

Nickxandar said...

Eeek ... at least the section I was sitting was spared the glare of the lights.

I hope that they do release the proposed DVD of the show so those of us in the cheap seats can finally see the show properly.