Sunny day in Lah Lah Land

The theatre community dresses up as characters from musicals as it celebrates the best of Singapore theatre

It was another day of sun at the 17th M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards on Monday, as the Singapore theatre community lit up the Esplanade Recital Studio in costumes from musicals.

The ceremony's theme of Lah Lah Land was a nod both to award- winning musical film La La Land (2016) and the bumper crop of Singapore musicals being staged this year.

The event, with the telco as title sponsor, was organised in collaboration with Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay.

Actress Pam Oei, who was back as host of the ceremony for the third year running, appeared as an impressive visual pun, with a large clam - or "la la" in local lingo - on her head, designed by hair maestro Ashley Lim.

Like Botticelli's Venus - but with more mollusc than bust - she rose in a shell-emblazoned outfit by designer Frederick Lee from the waves, represented here by her ripped blue jeans.

Oei set the musical tone for the afternoon with a rousing opening number sung to the tune of Kylie Minogue's Can't Get You Out Of My Head, famous for its earworm chorus of "la la la, la-la-la-la-la".

Many thespians came dressed as beloved characters from musicals, from Broadway blockbusters such as Les Miserables and Newsies to the more obscure On The Town and the off-Broadway The Wild Party.

Last year's Best Actress winner Siti Khalijah Zainal dolled up in red as little orphan Annie from the musical of the same name while four of the judges of the Best Production For The Young category arrived in full regalia as characters from The Wizard Of Oz, such as the Cowardly Lion and the Wicked Witch Of The West.

Actor Dwayne Lau, 35, snagged the Best Dressed prize for appearing as Emma Stone's character Mia in La La Land, complete with a yellow dress and a literal stone on his head.

The guest of honour, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu, clad in a red and white floral dress, praised the passion and craft of this year's winners in her speech.

"Your works looked beyond the surface and challenged us to consider different perspectives," she said.

She remained unfazed throughout a light ribbing by Oei, who seemed determined to milk the profanity in Edith Podesta's play B*tch: The Origin Of The Female Species for all it was worth.

"You should cover your ears," Oei, 45, warned the minister.

Jokes aside, Podesta, 37, was closer to her goal of reclaiming the slur through her feminist two- hander about a stroke victim's relationship with his wife and dog, which won Production Of The Year and Best Original Script.

"B*tch is just the name for a female dog. It's nothing more," said Podesta, who wrote, acted in and directed the play.

It received five nominations this year, but she said the two wins came as a surprise nevertheless. She added she hoped its success, despite a shoestring budget, would inspire more small productions to take the plunge.

Oei, who has been known to make presenters do yoga poses and belt out songs off the cuff in the past, was gentler this year.

Emotional wins for Falling

She got Siti, who was presenting the Best Actor award, to reel off her best eats in a quickfire round. Waffles? Montana Brew Bar at PoMo. Thai iced tea? Tuk Tuk Cha in Raffles City. Beef rendang? "My mother's," declared Siti with no little pride.

Clam antics aside, the ceremony also had emotional moments which warmed the cockles of the heart. The highlight of these was Pangdemonium's Tracie Pang finally clinching the Best Director award after 10 nominations.

"Well, that's new," quipped Pang, 49, who got an emotional kiss from her husband Adrian Pang before receiving her long-awaited accolade onstage to rapturous applause.

She said she was glad it was Falling, a play about autism, that she was recognised for. "This little production was one of the small plays that we felt a lot for, but we didn't know if the audience would. And it ended up touching so many people."

Falling was this year's big winner, scoring Best Actor for Andrew Marko, who portrayed an autistic teenager; Best Actress for Tan Kheng Hua, who played his mother; and Readers' Choice for Production Of The Year, voted by readers through an online poll.

Voting for the play won reader Alicia Theng, 21, a two-day, one- night weekend stay at M Social Singapore hotel's duplex-style Loft Gallery room. The stay, which is sponsored by M Social, comes with breakfast for two plus dinner for two at the hotel's Beast & Butterflies restaurant.

The economics student, who was picked in a lucky draw, said: "People tend to shy away from autism, but it's an issue that needs to be more accepted in society."

All those who took home awards for Falling made sure to dedicate their wins to the autistic community and their families.

First-time winner Marko, 25, said: "This doesn't belong to me, it belongs to all of them out there. They're not alone, they're not invisible - this is proof of that."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2017, with the headline 'Sunny day in Lah Lah Land'. Print Edition | Subscribe