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HOLY PAP! BURLESQUE NUNS!

L-R: Cheah Siew Oui, Zoë Christian, Shanthini Venugopal, Suzan Manen, Mary George

Antares the renunciate tackles the moral ambiguities of NUNSENSE 

There’s a website where you can answer a few questions and determine precisely what your belief system is. I got 100% for Neo-Paganism, 91% for Unitarian Universalism, 78% for Hinduism, and only 8% for Roman Catholicism.

Gardner and Wife Productions claim they debated the theological correctness of NUNSENSE with prominent Catholics before deciding to Malaysianize and stage this runaway hit musical in Kuala Lumpur. Perhaps they forgot to consult the Neo-Pagans who are bound to find this cutesy apology for old-style Papism effete and irrelevant, if not actually offensive. (Neo-pagans rarely get offended in any case; they merely go ho-hum and shake their gnostic heads at the way passive consumers continue to be bamboozled by the pap industry even in the new millennium).

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Dan Goggin,
laughing all the way…

Dan Goggin, creator of the off-Broadway hit musical comedy, NUNSENSE, was schooled by nuns and subsequently became a seminarian himself. After the colossal failure of his 1970s Broadway musical, LEGEND, Goggin aided his own financial recuperation by producing corporate extravaganzas. He also came up with a popular series of greeting cards featuring mildly risque nunnish humor and this eventually evolved into the award-winning NUNSENSE, which has since become a multimillion dollar industry with a whole series of sequels.

It figures. Jesus is sandwiched between two Marys: a “virgin” and a “prostitute.” Combine the archetypal polarities and you get a “bawdy nun.” Put five high-kicking, glue-sniffing, pun-spinning, dancing-and-singing nuns on stage and you’ve got yourself a moneyspinner. They don’t even have to be particularly attractive or talented, since the whole thing is presented as fundraiser to bury four other “blue” nuns whose dead bodies happen to be in cold storage until enough money is collected for their funerals.

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Shanthini Venugopal,
tried & tested trooper

But as luck (or showbiz savvy) would have it, Gardner & Wife found themselves the perfect cast. Shanthini Venugopal is a tried and tested trooper in the vaudeville tradition and she’s a fantastic jazz singer and actress to boot.

As Sister Mary Regina, Mother Superior of the Little Sisters of Kampong Pandan, Shanthini’s well-honed talent shines through like a lighthouse. Her earthy professionalism and stage presence anchored the entire production firmly in the realm of the watchable (I particularly enjoyed her Pope impression in a chef’s hat). She was ably aided by feisty dancer-singer Suzan Manen as Sister Mary Hubert and vibrantly abetted by winsome stage veteran Mary George as Sister Robert Anne.

Cheah Siew Oui was in fine voice

Add to that the mellifluous mezzo-soprano voice of Cheah Siew Oui as Sister Mary Amnesia and the tantalizing appeal of terpsichorean Zoë Christian as Sister Mary Leo – and even the hardest-core neo-pagan in the audience cannot help but be charmed and somewhat entertained – despite opening night problems with the radio mikes that gave me the sensation I was watching it all from the other side of the sound barrier.

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Holland Jancaitis,
musical director

An important member of the cast was musical director Holland Jancaitis (a youthful and diminutive Methodist imported all the way from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) whose fluency with the score and keyboard skills gave the production a bigger sound than two musicians might be expected to generate (he was efficiently accompanied by percussionist Clarence Ewe).

Goggin’s songs go down easy but aren’t particularly memorable and his script is an impressive catalog of classic nun jokes (What do you call a sleepwalking nun? A Roamin’ Catholic. Why don’t nuns take drugs? They already have a habit.) The house went wild every time the nuns formed a chorus line or got into a bit of burlesque. It’s really quite bewildering. If a stand-up comic told the same jokes he or she would be dismissed as a bore; but don a habit and you’re applauded as “funky.”

The impish Suzan Manen

Regardless of what I may have to say about commercial crassness (whether applied to religion or theater), the marks will keep lining up at the pearly gates (and some will even fork out RM80 in the hope that they might catch a bonus glimpse of nuns’ knickers!)

I wouldn’t be surprised if Dan Goggin’s inspiration for NUNSENSE arrived in the form of a nocturnal visit from the Vatican’s Men In Black – who silently handed him a fat envelope with encrypted instructions to write a hit musical comedy that will help regain a mass audience for the Pope. After all, any religion (or theatrical offering) with a ribald sense of humor can’t be all bad.

28 August 2001

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… AND THE SHOW GOES ON!

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Diong Chae Lian & Richard Gardner
of Gardner & Wife

Having to cancel a RM200,000 production on the day it’s scheduled to open is not such a funny thing to happen, as Gardner & Wife can attest. Celebrity chef Redzuawan bin Ismail (better known as Chef Wan), who plays the wisecracking slave Pseudolus, reportedly burst into tears when he heard the tragic news.

Fortunately there was a last-minute reprieve from on high and A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum was granted a performance licence, after having lost four days out of its 3-week run. But why this totally unexpected and unnecessary hiccup? When The Baltimore Waltz was denied a permit recently, the official reason given was its “unacceptable” scenes and dialogue. But surely this musical comedy from the early 1960s with music and lyrics by the illustrious Stephen Sondheim was inoffensive enough – except perhaps to neo-feminist sensibilities; and I’m pretty certain the problem wasn’t because women were portrayed as bimbos, floozies, and shrews; nor was it because men were shown up as nerds, wimps, pimps, lechers, pompous asses, eunuchs, deadheads and sleazeballs!

Zero Mostel starred in the original
Broadway production

As it turned out, the screw-up was over work permits for London-based musical director Simon Gray and a few “foreign” members of the cast. How something as stupid as this could possibly happen is another of life’s eternal mysteries. This was a co-production involving Akademi Seni Kebangsaan (the National Arts Academy), the Malaysian Tourism Centre (which provided the venue), and Richard Gardner and Chae Lian (who two years ago joined the pantheon of famous theater couples like Joe and Faridah, and Krishen and Marion). Does the Malaysian bureaucracy actually enjoy shooting itself in the foot? Perhaps it wants to maintain a monopoly on the production of farces?

So much for the official melodrama preceding the musical melodrama. Theater has become an extremely high-risk enterprise in Malaysia with the government muscling in on the act at every turn like an unloved child desperate for attention. Is ministerial paranoia getting more acute? Or is it just an extreme case of constipation caused by homophobic anal retention?

I remember falling asleep while watching the movie version of Forum (oh, many decades ago), which featured top names like Zero Mostel, Phil Silvers, Buster Keaton, and Michael Crawford. So I had no idea what to expect this time. Well, I didn’t nod off, but occasionally found it hard to applaud wholeheartedly, even though I rejoiced on behalf of the entire cast and crew that all their efforts hadn’t gone completely to waste.

Chef Wan as Pseudolus

The casting of Chef Wan as Pseudolus the freedom-loving slave was perhaps influenced by director Gardner’s fondness for inserting a bit of local flavor into all his adaptations of Broadway and West End hits. In this instance Chef Wan’s performance was reminiscent of the bangsawan tradition in Malay theatre of the Fifties and Sixties. Mostly, the irrepressible and impish Wan played himself. He didn’t score too well when it came to singing but the sheer force of his personality carried him through, despite his dubious diction. A natural performer, he quickly won the audience over with his practiced intimacy, although his rapid-fire asides in the vernacular confounded quite a few people (myself included, not just the Mat Sallehs). I suspect Gardner let Chef Wan spice up his Pseudolus with chili padi and sambal belacan to please the tastebuds of the TV chef’s local fan club.

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Reza Zainal Abidin as Lycus

Brian McIntyre, Reza Zainal Abidin, Lim Soon Heng, Edna Tan, and Fuad Tengku Ahmad turned in commendable performances as Erronius, Lycus, Senex, Domina, and Miles Gloriosus. Without their reassuring presence the production would have veered dangerously close to the reefs of disaster. The courtesans, played by Jodie LaRiviere, Joanna Saw, Krystle Chow, Farah Ashikin, and K’ma, were irresistibly vulgar but a bit too coy. The Proteans (doubling as slapstick soldiers and mincing cathouse eunuchs) would have been much funnier if only they had more stage experience; Llewellyn Marsh was the only one who passed muster, but only just.

As the arithmetically challenged virgin, Philia, Olivia Anne Goonting presented a winsome figure – but her singing voice was somewhat of a letdown. Jason Cheong’s Hero, a clueless, lovestruck scion of Senex and Domina, was a case of incongruous casting. He so resembled my computer techie friend, I was in a state of utter disbelief each time he spoke; but whenever he sang, he redeemed himself to a certain extent. I suppose a singing dentist is precisely the sort of character you’d find in a musical farce inspired by Plautus, the popular Roman playwright (circa 200 B.C.). But a Roman-style haircut might have helped.

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Gani Abdul Karim as Hysterium

I’m not sure what to make of Gani Abdul Karim’s take on Hysterium. He was at his best in drag, impersonating Philia’s corpse. His performance was highly energetic but lacked definition. Nonetheless, he has a talent for vaudeville, and he can sing.

The orchestra played admirably under the baton of Simon Gray, who conducted from his keyboard. Considering the intricacy and eccentricity of Sondheim’s score, it was a very accomplished performance and the most outstanding feature of the production.

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Stephen Sondheim

Stephen Sondheim is a very clever fellow with a cynical view of love and marriage. His collaboration with librettists Burt Shevelove and Larry Gelbart produced a quirky madcap spoof on Broadway musicals and Hollywood romances. Forum is sort of like a high school skit written by college professors. Lots of fun if cast just right. The inclusion of expert laughmeisters like Afdlin Shauki, Harith Iskandar, and Patrick Teoh might have taken the production up a notch or two (but they were busy performing Actorlympics at another theatre).

I found myself entertained by the proceedings at Forum, but not entirely enthralled by the performances. Just as well I didn’t have to purchase a ticket. This might have turned out a much grouchier review.

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