The adaptation of the 2016 Ola Bola movie about the Harimau Malaya is back by popular demand. For those who did not catch the play last year, here's a primer on what you can expect at the local production at Istana Budaya this month.
The movie was a triumph, winning fans across Malaysia’s multiracial and multilingual film audience, but when word first got out about Ola Bola The Musical, one couldn’t help but feel sceptical about a stage adaptation of the popular Chiu Keng Guan film inspired by the Malaysian football team’s historic bid to qualify for the 1980 Summer Olympics.
After all, how do you translate a football story into a musical showcase? Well, Enfiniti Group — the production company behind Puteri Gunung Ledang The Musical and P Ramlee The Musical — along with creator and director Puan Sri Tiara Jacquelina, shoots and scores with this one.
It is no easy feat to replicate the endearing and rousing spirit that made the film such a hit, or to convincingly bring football to life on stage, but Ola Bola The Musical succeeds, and the fact that it is a live show makes the energy all the more potent.
The audience has to walk up the grand staircase of Istana Budaya, Kuala Lumpur, and into the stately hall. There they will find that the setting is a far cry from the stands of Merdeka Stadium. The three-panel 180° giant screens on stage digitally simulate a stadium arena.
The night this writer was at the show, a member of royalty was in attendance, along with many of KL’s well-heeled, urbane crowd which made it all the more extraordinary that by the time the show reached its climax we found ourselves in an atmosphere akin to that at a real football game, with heartfelt cheers and reactions to match.
“Extraordinary” was the key word, with drummers and an emcee coming out among the crowd before the show to set the mood with some chants, one of which included the tag line, “anyone can be an extraordinary hero”, sung to the theme song of the musical.
It was a simple but effective ice breaker that set the tone, making it easy for the audience to go along on the journey from the get go. And when the lights went down, we immediately became part of the stadium crowd as the first match kicked off.
Inspired by hit Broadway musical Hamilton, the music in Ola Bola The Musical takes on a decidedly hip-hop and rock vibe. In a conversation with Tiara afterwards, she said it was indeed a reference she drew on when contemplating the show’s voice.
“If a bunch of politicians in early America can be rapping to each other in Hamilton, it is more natural for me to picture these footballers rapping ... because that is the very spirit of youth and energy. It’s so raw and uncensored, it’s urgent and fully emotional. There’s no holding back in rap, you just say what you feel.”
Composer Mia Palencia, who is known for her folksy jazz music, is no stranger to musical theatre. She wrote the songs for Mud KL, which was also produced by Tiara. Music director Saiful Ridzuan of Seven Collar T-Shirt added a rock and more vibrant sensibility to the expressive songs, which is refreshing when rapped to lyrics by Malaysian rap star Altimet, who also stars as Sergeant Ahmad.
Working with people from different musical fields is one way to create a fresh dynamic, especially to attract the younger generation to the theatre, said the director. There is also no shortage of creative devices, especially the technology — Tiara said a 180° theatrical experience on this scale is probably the first of its kind worldwide.
But for her, emotional investment is the crux of the show. She counts this as her debut of being at the helm of a show from conception to stage. But her biggest challenge was to make the football experience authentic, and to evoke the message of unity through it.
“I love stories that force people to think about what makes us unique, the diversity in this country, and of how it could be. When I watched Ola Bola, it was the first thing that hit me. I saw that, without needing any propaganda, this was a story that made me feel good about my country. I felt it needed to go beyond the cinema experience, to reach out to people live. I know the impact a good musical can have on people … you’re touched on a very different level from a movie, it goes deeper,” she said.
Laughingly, she recounted the scepticism she encountered when word got out a woman would be directing a musical about football. There was also the nightmare of making sure the game scenes simulated the real feel of a match.
This was one of the impressive elements of the musical. Instead of skimming over the games as one would expect, Tiara took it head on, and made sure those scenes were entertaining, thanks to shadow “ninjas” that carry the players, to 3D projection mapping, animation and intricate choreography by Stephen Rahman-Hughes (who also plays coach Harry Mountain) and the main choreographer, Azwa.
“The idea was to have variation, to reflect how each game experience is different. We didn’t want to repeat one device, which would make it look like the same thing again and again,” said Tiara.
Underscoring it all is the 74-strong cast, who show that there is no lack of talent in Malaysia. Brian Chan plays “Tauke” Chow Kok Keong competently, although the undeniable star is Iedil Putra, who makes the character Rahman truly his own. The show-stealer is definitely Douglas Lim, whose wisecracks as the cynical Mr Wong had the audience laughing and slapping their knees. Familiar faces include Lim Jian Wen and Muhd Luqman Hafidz, who reprised their film roles as Ah Chai and Ali respectively.
Ola Bola The Musical is certainly not flawless — at almost three hours long, the show was a tad bloated and the pace somewhat sluggish. There could also have been more confidence that the audience would come along for the ride, and maybe less of the “Harimau Malaya” nationalistic stirring at each turn to allow the quieter moments to shine through.
But at the end of the day, watching the entire hall on its feet cheering and shouting as the final goal approached was a surreal moment. One couldn’t help but think of life imitating art. Amid the hopeful cheers in paying tribute to the past and what could be for Malaysia’s future, as manifested through a sporting moment, there is also a glimpse of the promise for what Malaysian theatre could be.
[2019 ticketing details]
This article first appeared on Mar 5, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.