I love plays.

I am struggling to explain why but I think it is because in a stage play, nobody gets a chance for a cut. After all the practice sessions, there are still rooms for mistakes. So, I appreciate the courage needed for stage plays. There is also a direct connection between live play and the audience. You could hear the voices of the actors and actresses without any manipulation. Stage play is an exercise in exaggeration, but it feels more natural than those you watch on the TV, on the computer or in the cinema.

I have not watched a play for a long time and so when several friends suggested we spend our Friday night watching one, I said, “yes, let’s go.” This was a week ago, on the opening night of P. Ramlee the Musical.

First off, I think I want to say that I love the play.

But there were several issues that irked me.

I think the play started awkwardly, stressing to the audience that the play was our story and our identity. But I felt it should be about P. Ramlee, not our culture. Perhaps, that is just my libertarian sentiment battling society appropriating someone’s personal successes and failures (in many cases, just successes).

The opening song which stressed on ”our culture” was particularly weird with the lyrics noticeably struggling to rhyme everything with the word identity. Notwithstanding the forgettable song, and that what-on-earth-is-up-with-the-blind-man intro scene that could easily be cut, the group performance was entertaining. The song was awkward, but scene opened up rather well. I especially like the props but more on that later.

A bigger problem with the play was the uneven pacing. One example happened in the second half when P. Ramlee, played by Tony Eusoff (I love the accent, though it was maybe overdone to sound like P. Ramlee), was separating from his second wife Norizan. The argument and the divorce scenes were powerful. As Norizan — the awesome Tiara Jacquelina — exited the stage and accosted by paparazzi, she said “I give P. Ramlee back to the world.” That is a great line and it summarizes a huge part of the plot quite snappily. Most importantly, it was a great climax to build on the next part of the play. Disappointingly however, what followed next was an anti-climactic, sad, slow song about regrets that I found utterly unnecessary and wasting the momentum built. There were other scenes with the same problem and it did feel like those scenes were just there filling up time that needed to be filled for whatever reasons. So, I thought, those scenes could easily be cut off without affecting the play at all, making the play much punchier.

One big storyline that I found very distracting and irrelevant was the one where the play explored the fate of FMP employees, the Singaporean production studio which P. Ramlee made his name. The studio had to close down for financial reasons and people lost their jobs, including P. Ramlee. Maybe the director wanted to highlight the suffering of those behind P. Ramlee’s success, that P. Ramlee was not the only one who suffered. Maybe the director was trying to put in some kind of political-sociological nuance into the play, and to some extent, saying that it was disaster to the Malay film industry. But this play should be about P. Ramlee, not some academic papers about the film industry. So, I definitely think the play was biting more than it could chew and ended up with dissatisfying, digressing treatment of FMP employees as well as on P. Ramlee’s abrupt fall from fame. It would have been better if time was spent exploring P. Ramlee’s fall instead of the whole industry.

Moving on, I like the props. When the curtains, or really in this modern utilitarian world, the screens, were lifted up in the beginning, I felt impressed. The props were wonderful. The facade of colonial shophouses was done well enough that it immediately gave me a sense of the era the play was set in. Other props I thought deserve a mention were the train sets, which appeared in my best liked scenes.

But I dislike animation used in the play. There were scenes where the paparazzi/reporter characters were utilized to hasten the pace of the play. The animation projected on the screen was too distracting. It was overly flashy, changed rapidly but repetitively. It took my attention off the characters to the screen that was showing fluffy information that, for instance, you would get from reading newspaper columns where the author likes to use big words or ideas or some feel good slogan/cliche but ultimately fail to get to specifics and saying nothing new. I think it was better if the animation was less flashy, or probably replaced by a static picture instead.

I do not want to appear critical or hating the play. I do sincerely like the play except I do have issues with it, as I have made clear above, with the biggest ones involve the pacing, the FMP scene and the use of animation.

Other scenes that I like are the part when P. Ramlee was separating from Junaidah (or was it Junainah? I am confused). It was emotionally strong, although, like a friend of mine remarked, it was hard to hear what Lisa Surihani, who played the character, was saying amid all the sobbing. I do like how the crowd pulled P. Ramlee away from Lisa Surihani in that particular scene. I like the train scene from Penang to Singapore. I am not a theater man and I am not exposed to the “engineering” of props, but I was quite impressed with the movement of the train. There are a few others but I will not list all of them. I think I have forgotten some details a week after.

And that is the thing. When I came out of the play, I had trouble remembering the indigenous songs. I remembered the dollar for a dollar song. That was funny but almost nothing else. Given that this is a musical, I think the songs have to be memorable. Still, I think the audience loved it when they heard a hint of songs actually sang by the real P. Ramlee, like Gelora and Azizah.

At least I do. At home later that night, I went on Youtube and listened to old P. Ramlee songs before going to bed. Those songs are timeless that the play should have used more

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