Tough questions amid kampung frolics in Malay musical Alkesah

Siti Maznah is the witch Nenek Kebayan and Norisham Osman is the daydreamer Mat Jenin in musical Alkesah.
Siti Maznah is the witch Nenek Kebayan and Norisham Osman is the daydreamer Mat Jenin in musical Alkesah.PHOTO: JACK YAM



Esplanade Theatre Studio

Last Friday

Have you heard of how Fred Astaire was feted for being a great dancer while few noticed that Ginger Rogers did everything he did, backwards and in high heels?

Playwright Zulfadli Rashid, aka Big, and director Aidli Mosbit give the Gingers of the folktale world their fair share of the spotlight in Alkesah, one of the best new musicals presented in Singapore this year.

In Kampung Alkesah, crops are failing, coconut trees dying and Mat Jenin (Norisham Osman) has inherited the post of village head from his father despite being an incompetent daydreamer.

Should the village woes be blamed on climate change, as suggested by the wise Mak Andir (Siti Khalijah Zainal), or instead on the wicked witch Nenek Kebayan (Siti Maznah), as suggested by wily Pak Belalang (Jeff Catz)?

A tongue-in-cheek series of adventures follows, set to hip-shaking music from stalwart music director Elaine Chan and well-choreographed dances by Norhaizad Adam.

A Malay pantomime in the style of Wild Rice's hilarious English and Singlish send-ups of fairy tales, Alkesah puts together familiar figures from South-east Asian folklore and offers a different take on the old favourites.

Set design by Wong Chee Wai and puppets from Frankie Malachi, Mascots and Puppets turn the Esplanade Theatre Studio into a bustling kampung, dense jungle and also the wondrous, magical realm of Nenek Kebayan.

Every member of the main cast displays excellent comic timing and superb vocals, but one diva and two duelling duos steal the spotlight.

Siti Hajar Gani brings the coconut milkshake to the kampung backyard in a sizzling, stupendously funny lament for this missing ingredient in her cooking.

Siti Maznah and Shafiqhah Efandi (playing Sang Kancil) rap battle over a glittering broomstick, their pairing a comic reminder of the headline act this Pesta Raya - divas Aishah and Liza Hanim at the Esplanade Concert Hall.

Equally delightful are Hatta Said and Siti Khalijah as forgetful Pak Pandir and his exasperated wife Mak Andir. Pak Pandir is a trophy husband, always with a shopping cart, in a nod to his iconic misadventures when sent out by his wife. Mak Andir is the village intellectual, frustratingly ignored because of her gender.

The two quarrel and coo in equal measure, turning the mismatched couple of folklore into #relationshipgoals.

Folktales speak truth to power and Alkesah continues this tradition of asking hard questions: What makes a good leader? Who is truly responsible for a community - one headman or all residents? And why are truths spoken by women easier to bear when heard from male lips?

Alkesah makes these points with unforgettable wit and stand-out musical numbers in its sold-out run, which ended yesterday. Hopefully, it will be restaged very soon. This reviewer cannot be the only one wanting to watch it again.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 16, 2018, with the headline 'Tough questions amid kampung frolics'. Print Edition | Subscribe