Theatre review: Wild Rice pantomime is a side-splitting Journey to Jurong West

MONKEY GOES WEST

Wild Rice

Victoria Theatre/Saturday

Monkey Goes West is a rip-roaring, side-splitting herald of the holiday season that leaves the newly refurbished Victoria Theatre bubbling over with good cheer.

Wild Rice's Christmas pantomime takes the 16th-century Chinese classic Journey To The West and transposes it to Singapore. The West is now Jurong West (which is "not ghetto, okay"), and the mountain Sun Wukong is trapped under is a garish, peeling diorama in Haw Par Villa.

The company's resident playwright Alfian Sa'at cleverly abandons the meandering structure of the original for a pared-down version, which sees Ah Tang (Joshua Lim) enlisting the help of three misfit exiles - Wukong, Pigsy and river ogre Sandy - in his quest to return home. In the usual panto tradition, at the heart of the story is a message. Here, it is about discovering one's flaws and being appreciative of the people around you.

Also, in the spirit of the season, most of the laughs are not due to scripted, political jokes (although there were jibes at a certain country's haze-inducing forest fires), but to the cast's comedic timing.

And all the actors deliver solidly, including Frances Lee, last seen in Pangdemonium's Fat Pig, as an actual pig this time; and veteran Lim Kay Siu as Ah Tang's Uncle Moo and nemesis King Bull.

That said, the star of the night is Sugie Phua, who plays rock star monkey king Wukong with a winning mix of lackadaisical too-cool-for-school 'tude and twitchy cheekiness. This makes Wukong the perfect foil for the slightly blur sotong Ah Tang.

Siti Khalijah Zainal as Guan Yin Ma and river ogre Sandy also provides rich comedy gold. Although she does not have many lines, she delivers them with such aplomb that the audience giggle at everything she says, whether intentionally funny or not.

Special mention also needs to be made of Chua Enlai's show-stopping gams, which in a form-fitting cheongsam and neon pink stripper heels as Ah Tang's Auntie Fanny, appear to go on for miles and miles.

Composer Elaine Chan's songs are infectiously toe-tapping, with a nod to the Chinese origins of the story by using instruments such as the dizi and Chinese cymbals. I found myself leaving the theatre humming the opening theme Monkey Goes West, and Wukong's number Master Of Disguise is a bona fide rock anthem, which Phua performs like a Kiss number, complete with him sticking out his tongue a la Gene Simmons.

Other nods to Chinese opera throughout the piece include the stylised combat scenes, which were choreographed by Gordon Choy, who has himself played Sun Wukong in several Chinese opera productions.

These elements all come together on a beautifully lavish set, designed by Wong Chee Wai. When the curtain rises, the modestly sized Victoria Theatre stage overflows with four massive golden pillars, around each of which dragons coiled menacingly.

Monkey Goes West is the first musical to open at the theatre post-renovation, which brings with it a certain amount of expectation and pressure. Fortunately, with the show's nimble mix of laughs and slick production, it does justice to that place in history.

MONKEY GOES WEST

Where: Victoria Theatre

When: Now until Dec 13. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, 7.30pm; Thursday and Saturday, 2.30pm and 7.30pm; Sunday 2.30pm

Admission: Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday: $50, $65 and $75; Friday, Saturday and Sunday, $55, $70 and $80 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)