Musical Spooktacular!

By Dylan Tan
Business Times
Published March 18, 2011

WHILE the musical comedy H is for Hantu may be filled with a bag of laughs, one of the characters was inspired by writer-director Jonathan Lim’s personal brush with the supernatural.

‘I had a near-encounter with what I believe was a ‘Hantu Penanggalan’ during my NSF days, at the old Beach Road Camp; it was a floating head spirit I saw at pre-dawn,’ says Lim.

‘The memory lingered horribly in my mind, and it is very cathartic to be able to turn that into a very lovable Miss P who now only makes me laugh,’ he adds, referring to one of the many madcap ghouls who appear in the show.

First staged in 2009, H is for Hantu charmed the young and old alike with its mix of puppetry, comedy and music. Its story about urban development as the inhabitants – both living and dead – of Singapore’s last kampung are forced to leave, is one which is deeply rooted in local culture.

H is for Hantu’s re-run is one that Lim says should be a common practice here.

‘A really good musical that is going to stand the test of time requires several stages of development and testing before it really comes into its own,’ he explains. ‘Our industry has become too used to disposable theatre-making – creating shows quickly, running them briefly and then discarding them. It takes years of testing and re-testing, revisiting and refining.’

Several changes have been made and audiences are in for new surprises, including meatier roles for the puppets created by Frankie Malachi.

‘Getting to know the puppets so much better after the first run, we’ve been able to be more ambitious with them and they now come to life so much more thrillingly,’ Lim says. ‘For example, the charming Hantu Batu (Stone Spirit) was a bit of a cameo in the previous show, but now it shows up more prominently – challenging the puppeteer but also adding a new hantu sidekick to the story!’

Lim is touched by how quickly local audiences have taken to H is for Hantu and reveals it won’t be the end of the road for this musical spook-tacular after it completes this run.

‘There is a sequel in the works… This is probably the most honest and sincere work I’ve ever written, and I am happy to learn that the audience appreciates it.’

H is for Hantu runs from March 23 to April 3 at Gallery Theatre, National Museum. Showtimes are at 3pm and 8pm.

Tickets at $35 from Sistic

Kampung capers: The musical comedy H is for Hantu (left) , which was first staged in 2009 to rave reviews, makes a comeback with meatier roles for the ghouls, ghosts and assorted blood-suckers.

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Tickets on Sale now!

Back for a second run from 23 March to 3 April 2011, H is for Hantu has been noted for its “masterful storytelling” (Ng Yisheng, Inkpot Reviews) and “having a heart of gold” (Amanda de Guzman, Business Times).

Suited for all ages, with a tale for the young and young at heart, and the folklores of old when Singapore still had its kampungs, H is for Hantu tells a tale of a kampung boy Sazali who does not want to leave his kampung for the new HDB flats.

Not only that, he will leave his friends, the hantu, behind. Be enthralled by the songs of Bang Wenfu and Jonathan Lim and the puppetry of Frankie Malachi, as Sazali, Miss P and Cik Pon try to save their habitat and their home!

Tickets are available at SISTIC at $35, with discounts for block bookings, children, and senior citizens up to 20% available.

Schools may also apply for the NAC-AEP Tote Board grant to subsidise up to 50% of ticket prices.

Email team@nowstagethis.com for enquiries and bookings now! Or call/SMS us at 9428 4507.

 

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Full review at Flying Inkpot!

Kampung Spirit

I shall now enumerate the flaws of H is for Hantu:

  1. Mediocre singing.
  2. Clumsy-looking dance sequences.
  3. Bad tech: ear-pounding slip-ups with sound, minor puppetry malfunction.
  4. My seat was fairly central, and already I could see the actors in the wings.
  5. Disappointment at how Ghazali Muzakir has been given yet another stereotyped “earthy Malay boy” role when his performances in Mad Forest and The Hypochondriac prove he’s capable of so much more.
  6. Extremely juvenile performance style – i.e., this is children’s theatre. The titular song is set to the tune of Sesame Street‘s C is For Cookie, and the entire audience was forced to sing it – with actions! Mortifying. Why didn’t MDA warn us about that, instead of insisting on its first-ever “Supernatural Content” advisory (based on the premise that not everyone knows that “hantu” is Malay for “ghost”)?

Phew. Now we’ve got all that settled, I can get to the meat of this review. Despite all these problems (and many are forgivable, given that I went for a matinee performance on the very first day), this show really, really rocks.

The bulk of the publicity centres on the ghosts – and sure, I’m impressed at the ingenuity and resourcefulness of director / playwright Jonathan Lim and puppet designer Frankie Malachi for bringing the stuff of Malay horror stories to life with the help of a little felt and plastic. The ginormity of the hantu galah (a gangly, giant spirit) is a sight to behold, the hantu batu (a walking stone) is adorable with its little moving legs, and the Chinese little girl ghost Swee Choo is actually really chilling.

However, what truly wows me in this play is Lim’s masterful storytelling. The show is a children’s comedy musical, but it contains real heart, and involves a serious, well thought-out treatment of the politics of Singapore’s continuous urban development to boot.

Our hero Sazali (played by Ghazali), is a schoolboy with the ability to see ghosts, living in Singapore’s last kampung. When a woman from the Housing Development Board comes to tear the place down, he decides to fight back on behalf of the community of spirits who live nearby.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Given Lim’s history of creating thigh-slapping populist anti-authoritarian sketches, we’re fully expecting an epic haunting of the HDB official, torturing her with ghastly visions until she caves in to their demands.

But that’s not what happens at all. Instead, the official in question, Angie Seah (played movingly by Koh Wan Ching), turns out to be a victim herself. She’s already possessed by an unspeaking ghost who drives her to scrabble through the jungle at night, searching for something in the ground. Sazali investigates, and finds out that she used to live in the kampung as a child, and Swee Choo was her best friend, a mute girl who died soon after her departure for city life.

Angie isn’t the bad guy – in fact, she fought hard to get put in charge of the kampung’s relocation, so that she could ensure that the residents were treated right. It’s a far more insightful and moving picture of the situation of many Singaporeans -we’re sentimental, but we know we can’t defeat the government once it’s made up its mind about something. So we’re pragmatic. We do what we can, and try to sleep at night.

But sometimes, we can’t sleep. The earth calls to us. So when Angie finally meets Swee Choo face to face and presents her with the token of their friendship she’s been searching for – well, that’s the moment when tears sprang to my eyes.

I also appreciate Lim’s intelligent portrayal of the kampung folk. Rather than being passive victims, they’re smart, modern Singaporeans with their own minds, sick of boiling their own hot water and having power cuts while watching The Little Nyonya. When Angie offers them attractive new apartments, they’re happy to move – and they ultimately keep their community together using a Facebook group. (There’s a special bounty of laughs to be had from the character of Cik Mariam, a 60-something-year-old auntie who relies on Twitter and Blackberry, played by Gene Sharudyn in tudung drag.)

And of course, all this wit and insight is bundled up in a busload of fun. Once you get used to the fact that you’re going to be treated like a seven year-old, you’re willing to clap along to the songs and groan at the corny jokes and scream when the shrouded body of the hantu bungkus nearly jumps into the stalls. You lap up the fascinating nuggets of Malay folklore thrown out at us, and marvel at the little flourishes of the puppetry and set design: the lighted windows of an MRT train rushing across the horizon, a wayang kulit performance featuring shadow puppets of hantu battling the rising city, the way a clothesline instantly becomes a little neighbourhood of doors.

Of course, the play might have been better if my above complaints had been addressed: Koh Wan Ching should not have been given a tearful solo when she patently can’t sing, and everyone could have improved their diction (Jo Tan suffered from this particularly in her Malay language number as Cik Pon the pontianak).

Nonetheless, I’m extremely happy with this show. For years, we’ve seen Jonathan Lim as an accomplished bilingual actor, comedian, director and humorous lyricist. With H is for Hantu, we now have proof beyond doubt that he should also be recognised as an excellent playwright.

Separator

Note:  The reviewer has previously worked with actors Jo Tan and Candice de Rozario in W!ld Rice’s The Last Temptation of Stamford Raffles. Curiously, Jo also played a pontianak in that one.

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Business Times review

H is for having a heart of gold
Amanda De Guzman
21 August 2009
(c) 2009 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

EVEN for the easily frightened, there’s very little to be scared about in H is for Hantu. All the supernatural creatures in this musical are either furry, funny or both.

Clearly geared for the younger set, the show follows the adventures of Sazali (Ghazali Mukazir), a resident in the last kampung in Singapore, which is about to be razed in the name of urban development. While most of his neighbours are pretty pleased about moving, Sazali extols the virtues of life in the kampung.

One of the things he enjoys is that his best friends are always nearby: Pontianak (Josephine Tan) and Hantu Penanggalan (Candice de Rozario). Tan’s Pontianak is a sexy diva prone to big band singing, while Hantu Penanggalan – or Miss P, as Sazali instructs us to call her – is a puppet with only her major intestines for a body. The two are prone to constant bickering, but this takes a backseat to their problem, which will see their home being destroyed. The trio don’t know what to do; even Sazali’s shadow puppet attempt to convince government agent Angie Chia (Koh Wan Ching) about the value of the kampung is in vain. That is, until they realise that Ms Chia is being possessed by a little girl hantu. Determined to figure out who this ghost is, the three of them set out to meet other hantus in an attempt to solve the mystery.

While the message of the importance of traditional values is endearing, there isn’t too much in the production for those out of their early teens. However, for the kids, it’s an enjoyable musical ride that comes with some memorable characters, catchy tunes and some palatable lesson-learning. Their chaperones will be able to appreciate Eucien Chia’s cleanly inventive set design, as well as a bravura performance by Josephine Tan, whose stylish yet calibrated strutting and preening easily steals the stage.

‘H is for Hantu’ will be staged until Aug 23 at the Alliance Francaise Theatre. Tickets are $30-$40 and can be purchased at www.gatecrash.com.sg

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Straits Time Life! review

More spills than chills
Tara Tan
17 August 2009
(c) 2009 Singapore Press Holdings Limited

Comedy revue caters to younger audience, but still tugs at heartstrings

H Is For Hantu / Stages
Alliance Francaise de Singapour
Last Friday

Director Jonathan Lim (of Chestnuts fame) combines comedy, song and ghost stories to good effect in his latest play, H Is For Hantu.

Set in the last surviving kampung in Singapore, where supernatural beings seek refuge from the chaotic city life, the gossamer-thin plot revolves around a boy’s efforts to save the village from the Government’s redevelopment plans.

The boy (an earnest and peppy Ghazali Muzakir) is aided by his ghostly friends, a sultry Pontianak (Jo Tan) and a happy-go-lucky Hantu Penanggalan (Candice de Rozario), which is a ghost with just a head and long entrails.

More slapstick than spooky, this rip-roaring comedy had me chuckling at its sly digs at contemporary culture and quintessentially Singaporean references such as a ghost’s complaints that he keeps walking through ERP gantries.

Cheeky and topical – director Lim slips in lessons about urban renewal and harmonious living – the revue was also poignantly framed by more than a passing reference to Singapore’s last surviving village, Kampung Buangkok, which has been slated for redevelopment in the near future.

Although the show skipped along at a jaunty pace, it felt a little threadbare at times during its two-hour duration. It also seemed to cater to a younger crowd, peppered as it was with overzealous narration, moral lessons delivered just a tad too earnestly, and jokes that are rather tame and child-friendly. The absence of the clever naughtiness which is often found in Lim’s previous edgier works, haunted this play.

Nonetheless, there was much to like about H Is For Hantu. The youthful cast, made up of fresh faces, was delightful and energetic. Puppet master Frankie Malachi’s beautiful creations, from the kind, wood-gnarled face of the Hantu Galah to the chilling porcelain head of a child ghost, enthralled. And local composer Bang Wenfu’s catchy ditties lifted the play, even if poor acoustics meant the actors’ voices couldn’t be heard clearly.

If H Is For Hantu was not slick, it was at least enjoyable, especially for those who are young at heart. More pertinently, it dealt with issues and themes close to the hearts of Singaporeans. There was beauty in its imperfection, down to the too-cute miniature MRT train in the slightly rickety set.

taratan@sph.com.sg

book it
H IS FOR HANTU
Where: Alliance Francaise Auditorium
When: Today to Sunday, 3 and 8pm
Admission: $30, $35 and $40 from Gatecrash ( www.gatecrash.com.sg or call 6100-2005)

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H is for Hantu on the news media!

H is for Hantu review – Today 17 Aug 09

H is for Hantu on Prime Time Morning CNA

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H is for Hantu, that’s good enough for you…

Check out our H is for Hantu Jingle!

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