Cheras, The Musical!: Aspirational, in the right key

Photo: Horng Yih Wong

Cheras, The Musical!
By Five Arts Centre
22 October – 1 November 2015, Theatre KuAsh

Review by Kathy Rowland

The homegrown musical has become ubiquitous on the Malaysian scene over the past few years. Some have been hagiographic – Muzikal Tun Mahathir, Ismail: The Last Days, Tunku The Musical, and P. Ramlee. Others have been period pieces or epic works such as Puteri Gunung Ledang and Siddhartha the Musical.

June Tan’s Cheras, The Musical! in contrast, takes on an ordinary family in Cheras, a suburb that is at once familiar and yet unknown to many of us. Her characters are written upon the human rather than the political scale, and it is from these all too flawed characters that Cheras derives most of its charm. Cherry Lum and her two children, Jackson and Blossom, are at times foolish, driven by self-interest, inconsistent, and in search of the easy way out. They are also kind, and supportive, and rather funny.

Cherry Lum’s (Marina Tan) moment came and went 30 years ago, with the infectious one-hit wonder, Love Jam. Now a middle-aged woman reduced to singing at KTV lounges, she wants a reset button to give her a second chance. Her dreams are not the risk everything dream but the “stop dreaming, make it happen” kind. When you’re in Cheras, even your dreams are constrained by practicality.

Therefore, her son Jackson (Jayson Phuah) must maintain his safe job as a skincare salesman, inching the family towards middle-class security, while her daughter Blossom (Tan Yon Lynn), whose very name is an extension of her mother’s (Cherry Blossom, gettit?) will be the vector of Mdm Lum’s risky dreams. Cherry fails to realize that her children are the product of her own relentless aspirations rather than an extension of her future dreams. Neither wants a part in the future she envisions for them and the intergenerational conflict that pits the overbearing mother against the slightly cowed children is shown to good comic effect by Tan’s rather droll dialogue.

Photo: Horng Yih Wong

A reality-show signing contest galvanizes the three into action. Blossom, motivated by money, Jackson to escape the ennui of Cheras, and Cherry, for both the vicarious pleasure of her daughter’s erstwhile stardom and the desperately needed cash prize to pay off an Ah Long (played with palpable relish by Vernon Adrian Emuang). A series of events lead to Jackson, in drag, singing in Blossom’s place. He’s a hit, until a nip-slip reveals the deception.

The fall-out pushes them towards their true destiny, but only after each goes through the obligatory trials and tribulations that bring out their better selves. Jackson’s risk-adverse indecisiveness, “Do also can, don’t do also can,” is finally broken when the stakes are raised and he becomes an active agent of his own destiny, 
”It’s time I make my own rules,” tearing up the scam contract of his music agent, Win Win (a delightful Nisya Aziz). Blossom, the risk-taking sibling, “Why be bankable not radical?/ Better we do than we don’t,” is, at the cusp of success, seized by doubt. Derrick, a computer nerd (rather puzzlingly dressed as a dandy) gives her a much-needed boost of confidence and affirmation. Derrick is a gender reversal of the stereotypically supportive female friend/girlfriend who enables the central (usually male) character to achieve his destiny. But Blossom, faced with the moment when all her talk is put to the test, reverts to the safety of conventional gender roles and glibly undercuts the moment by offering Derrick her body. Her song in this scene has her singing of herself in the third person, “I’m here waiting for me on hold/Till she appears,” as if she has lost sight of herself. This moment of hesitation is crucial to the internal logic of the play, where each child’s desires are tinged by doubts that seem to be missing from Cherry’s own restless pursuit of a future past.

Doubt is a luxury Cherry can’t afford. Even the utter humiliation of her comeback fails at first to make her realize how delusional the dreams she harbors are. It is her faithful, under-appreciated boyfriend, Uncle Chong, who finally makes her realise that she has much to be thankful for.

Musical director Adriane Palikat and Tan have done a stellar job with the songs – Love Jam, with its delightfully literal dance moves (choreographed by Suhaili Micheline), is an earworm to be nurtured like a beloved pet. However, the strength of the lyrics, composition and live music served to highlight the biggest weakness of the production. You cannot have a musical without performers who are equipped to deal with the demands of dancing, singing and acting. Marina Tan, in the pivotal role of Cherry, has a sweet singing voice, and an engaging stage presence. In those moments when it was acting chops rather than singing on display, Marina was able to harness the plaintive, gentle quality of her voice to good effect. Unfortunately, this was not enough to do justice to the role of the ageing, desperate diva. Aside from Jayson Phuah and Nisya Aziz, who were more assured in their singing and dancing, the rest of the cast suffered in varying degrees from this lack of skill. Overall, this lent the production the feel of a work in progress.

Photo: Horng Yih Wong

Director Chee Sek Thim’s sparse aesthetic, previously deployed to good effect in productions such as That Was the Year, is evident in the set design. We are confronted by anonymous highway pylons, which highlight the larger themes of the relentless urban sprawl and its homogenizing power. Yet the play itself does not fully explore the darker aspects of our aspirational class system and hence there was a feeling of disjuncture between the plot as it unfolded and the austere stage. Indeed, the production seemed caught by a desire to be more than a song and dance, yet never convincingly showed us what more it had to offer.

Cheras, the Musical! was aspirational, as all first works should be. Despite its flaws, what did come through was the commitment of each cast member to their roles, within the limits of their abilities. It had an energy and enthusiasm that won the production a great measure of audience good will.

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