Theatre review: Dick Lee's revamped Hotpants is tighter and funkier

The year is 1972. Three teenage girls form a band to win Talentime. Their trio of mothers, each with her own secrets, are also friends who go way back. -- PHOTO: ALFRED PHANG 
The year is 1972. Three teenage girls form a band to win Talentime. Their trio of mothers, each with her own secrets, are also friends who go way back. -- PHOTO: ALFRED PHANG 

I did not watch the original 1997 production of Dick Lee’s musical Hotpants, but a Business Times reviewer uncharitably referred to it as “too long, raunchy as a school picnic, and static”.

So I walked into the Drama Centre last Friday expecting a whale of a production: doddering, bloated, and quite prone to beaching itself. Instead, thankfully, we got a dolphin. This revival of Hotpants, is trim, sleek, sometimes cheeky, and overall actually quite fun to be with.

The year is 1972. Three teenage girls, in that delightfully awkward stage of youth, form a band to win Talentime (actually, just to impress boys at a neighbouring school). Their trio of mothers, each with her own secrets, are also friends who go way back.

As the hidden comes to light, it ignites a bitchy mess of alcohol-induced adultery, surprise pregnancies, affairs (an illicit relationship between a vice-principal and his secretary comes complete with spanking and “nipple tickling”) and husband-stealing.

What made Hotpants so enjoyable was that it was thoroughly Singaporean, without being cringeworthy. Set-in-Singapore musicals often fall into the trap of overplayed lahs and lehs, and melodramatic storylines about chasing dreams or finding yourself. But Hotpants was as comfortable as an aunty haggling over fish in a market. The patois, the stereotypes, the conflicts and even the awkwardness was characteristically Singaporean.

Stern mother Nellie (Eleanor Tan) does not let her daughter Penny (Cheryl Tan) join the talent contest, because of poor results (i.e. only four distinctions) at the last exam. Vice-principal Pereira (a portly, mustachioed Ebi Shankara) constantly barks at the students to “exit in an orderly fashion” after school assemblies. Socially inept Alfie (Dwayne Tan), in a titanically disastrous attempt at flirtation, tells Nellie: “When it comes to giving compliments, I usually have constipation. But when it comes to you, I have diarrhoea.” Not the most sanitary line, but its mix of odd phrasing and crass humour does somehow hit the Singaporean funnybone. Can you imagine that being uttered on any other stage in the world?

Lee, who wrote and directed the show, also shaved half-an-hour off the original three hour running time. While the 1997 Business Times review noted “bum lines and flat moments”, Lee’s overhauled script is snappy, and confident enough to be smugly self-referential about his past hit musicals. When one character “cha cha cha”s, another follows with “Girl, this is not Beauty World” (which, by the way, is making a comeback in November next year), and another contestant joins Talentime with an original composition: Fried Rice Circumcise.

But the show is not just bells and whistles. At the heart of it lies three believable mother-daughter relationships, which are fraught with the same tensions and tested by the same fires as they have been for centuries past.

As fast as the daughters run to escape the shadows of their mothers, they never quite get away. They manifest identical traits, just in different ways. Suzy Desouza’s (Nikki Muller) selfishness leads her to have an affair with a married man, while her daughter Sharon (Tabitha Nauser) abandons her bandmates for a solo record deal. Capricious and impulsive Connie (Denise Tan) just wants to have fun without consequences. She ends up in bed with a teenage boy, while her daughter (Kimberly Chan) gets knocked up by his friend.

The production boasts a cast of stage veterans and actual talent show winners, who live up to their billing. Singers such as Singapore Idol alumni Nauser and Joakim Gomez, and Vasantham Star winner Shankara got to strut their stuff, while props have to be given to Muller, who commanded the stage in poofy hair and tiny purple hotpants.

That is not to say that the show was perfect. Sometimes, the blocking was awkwardly static, and some of the show’s slower numbers were forgettable. At points, the dialogue was still questionably wordy, and verged on the edge of camp. But I’m willing to give those niggles a free pass, because above all, Hotpants was a whole lot of good fun.


Book It

Hotpants

Where: Drama Centre Theatre When: Now until Aug 30. Tuesday to Friday, 8pm; Saturday, 3pm and 8pm; Sunday, 2pm Admission: Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday, $49, $59, $69 and $79; Friday and Saturday, $53, $63, $73 and $83 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)