TIMED to coincide with the patriotic fever gripping our country, Tunku the Musical is an ambitious and colourful piece of entertainment.
Aiming to highlight the impact of this great man upon the lives of ordinary Malaysians, I nevertheless found the storyline and its two-dimensional characters too trite. It told a story and pushed all the right patriotic buttons, but failed to raise new questions and push boundaries - which surely is the whole point of theatre.
Stealing the show was Tony Eusoff as Syed, the manipulative, racist aide to Tunku Abdul Rahman. Champion of Malay supremacy and domination, he nevertheless has a Chinese mistress, Maria. The conflict between his public and private persona is never explained.
Hypocritically, he bars his son Malik from seeing his girlfriend - an ethnic Chinese named Fauzia who was raised by Ali the Malay laksa hawker. Malik is sent off to England, and tears ensue.
Some years later, during the May 13 riots, Fauzia suffers rape and murder at the hands of Malay rioters, whilst it is the Chinese rioters who kill Malik. The politician father laments his son's death.
Strangely, there is absolutely no one of Indian ethnicity represented in the storyline. One unfamiliar with Malaysian culture might well come away from the show thinking that our country consisted only of Chinese and Malays.
The romance between Fauzia (played by a cloyingly sweet Doreen Tang) and Malik (Zamil Idris) was unconvincing and bland. The characters were wooden and dialogue was stale, giving the actors little to work with.
However, Doreen's portrayal of the attack on Fauzia was commendable. The choreography in this scene had immense impact and it was undoubtedly one of the musical's most powerful moments.
Another enjoyable scene was one in which the two laksa hawkers argue good-naturedly over the ethnic origins of this distinctly Malaysian dish.
Evelyn Toh as Cik Tan and Maria Yasmin as Maria both gave impressive performances. The strong-willed Hokkien woman and the anguished lover gave colour and interest to an otherwise flaccid plot.
Acting as Greek chorus and observer was Douglas Lim as Paul, a reporter. His performance lacked consistency, and failed to fully exploit the potential of the character.
Just as in Waiting for Godot , the eponymous hero never actually appears on stage during the entire production of Tunku. However, whilst in Beckett's infamous production the character's absence permeates and overshadows the performance in is entirety, in Tunku , I felt that the connection between the Father of Independence and the action on stage was tenuous. Change the title to 'A Love Story' and you would not have changed the essence of the musical.
Air of authenticity
However, the images of Tunku Abdul Rahman projected onto large screens were poignant and touching, harking back to an age of bravery, innocence and optimism. Indeed, the screens were utilized very effectively, with authentic footage courtesy of Filem Negara combined with close-up shots of the action onstage.
The use of black and white costumes also provided an air of authenticity and nostalgia, contrasting with the multicoloured celebration of unity that the show ends with.
Overall, the quality of the production was excellent. Music, direction, lighting and choreography were vibrant, detailed and of international standard.
It is interesting to note that we Malaysians are still sensitive about race, even after 50 years of living together. I overheard members of the audience expressing some edginess regarding the May 13 issue in after-show chatter.
Why are we still afraid? Where does our xenophobia stem from? Is it right that race is used as a political trumpcard? These were questions the production could have addressed, but which it didn't.
Instead, the musical ended as it began, with great pomp and circumstance celebrating our nation's independence, presenting a rose-tinted vision of harmony and unity that I'm afraid is far from reality even as we approach our 50th year of independence.
Tunku the Musical will be showing at Pentas 1, KL Pac until Sept 2. For more details visit www.klpac.com
HON YI WEN is an intern with Malaysiakini.