It is a hot, sunny day in Melaka’s Kampung Jawa area and the streets are relatively quiet for a Sunday afternoon. But the foyer of Panggung Bangsawan Melaka — the old Cathay cinema by the river — is already packed. The crowd, comprising both young and old, are eagerly awaiting a 3pm preview of Rasa Melaka The Musical.
In Malaysia, theatrical art performances are usually staged in the capital Kuala Lumpur, and yet, the past year has seen one of the most technologically spectacular shows, Encore Melaka, open in the historical city. And now, Muka Space Productions has brought its first musical to town for a two-year run.
While Encore is an international franchise helmed by renowned Chinese director Wang Chaoge — who worked closely with film director Zhang Yimou to bring several site-specific song and dance shows across China, Rasa Melaka is the labour of love of two Melakan boys — Deric and Easee Gan.
We walk into the mid-sized theatre with well-spaced out and comfortable seats (harking back to its past life as a movie theatre. The walls near the stage are plastered with artistically rendered prints of iconic local sites, from the Tanjung Kling Mosque to A Famosa and more.
A hand-painted mural sits on stage, shielding a set of kampung houses in the background. At first impression, the overall vibe is amateurish and local, but charming, nevertheless.
Deric, who has been based in Beijing for the past decade as a commercial theatre director, says candidly that the hour-long production is not meant to be a polished extravaganza per se.
“When the representatives from Panggung Bangsawan asked late last year if Muka Space — the local production company I run with my brother, Easee — could create a story of Melaka for the theatre, I wanted it to be something that comes from the perspective of common folk — a very localised, daily life sort of show,” he explains.
Inspired by Chinese novelist Lao She’s Teahouse as well as American playwright Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, the multi-lingual musical eschews high-tech audio-visual and acrobatic performances for a more “lo-fi” experience that has the feel of a local community show.
That is not to say the production quality is lacking, as a rain scene proved particularly impressive. Deric is, after all, an award-winning director whose adaptations of Richard III, The Dawns Here Are Quiet and Peking Man in Kuala Lumpur have been critically acclaimed.
He has brought along his experienced creative team for this project — assistant director Amelia Tan, choreographers Cheong Lin Poo, Tan Bee Hung and Mohd Fauzi Mohd Redzuan Min, Lee Yueh Yi as music director, and composers Jacqueline Teng, Andrew Lim and Toh Shir Ling. The costumes are created by Beatrice Looi, while Easee is an experienced producer who works with The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre.
The show opens with a whimsical dialogue between three schoolchildren about their dreams, their grandfathers and Melaka, setting an emotive tone designed to usher the audience into a journey that straddles both the physical and the surreal, linked by the lives of three friends — Lak, Melia and Kashvi — who live in Kampung Chetti. Together, the three names make up Melaka — a representation of every Melakan, obviously symbolic of the stories of each local son and daughter.
“I chose four major events that affected all Melakans across the board — the 1956 announcement of the declaration of independence, the catastrophic flood in 1971, the water shortage crisis in 1990 and the 2008 listing of the historical city as a Unesco World Heritage Site,” says Deric.
For anyone expecting otherwise, Rasa Melaka is not designed to be an intellectual showpiece. There are the usual, somewhat contrived, cultural references and a colloquial style of speech, but then again, the musical’s aim is to entertain and educate visitors while bringing locals on a journey of poignant nostalgia.
To that end, it works. There are plenty of smiles throughout, and children singing along to a medley of rhymes such as San Lun Che (A Trishaw), Lenggang Kangkung and Bangun Pagi, while Lak’s Hokkien phrases draw laughs among the older crowd. The songs are catchy, and one, called Alamak, will stick in your head long after the show ends. The performers, despite being non-professionals, are competent and well trained.
“The biggest challenge was to find the right cast. It was almost impossible to find well-rounded musical actors, so we gave up on that and decided to cast ordinary people, among them, a sales person, yoga teacher, makeup artist, teacher and construction workers, and then trained them intensively for two months,” Deric says.
The pacing can be brisk and disjointed at parts, as if we’re watching a montage of moments at times — we are told this is influenced by the work of Bertolt Brecht in its non-conventional narrative style, and due to the short length, there is also a lack of time to linger on certain scenes.
Nonetheless, non-theatre goers may find the brevity more enjoyable, coupled with an often irreverent and humorous tone that embodies the laidback local lifestyle. I mean, the lyrics for one of the songs even contains the phrase “worry for what?”
What successfully comes across in the end is what is most important for Deric and Easee — a show about Melaka by and for Melakans.
“I have been away for almost 20 years, but my biggest dream has always been to be able to stage a show back home. To be able to tell a story from the perspective of the everyday Melakan, to offer a glimpse of the spirit of generations that have come before ... to me, it’s the greatest honour. It is here that I learnt my first words, how to tie my shoelaces, where I laughed, cried, experienced loss and also been moved. While I have broadened my horizon, the Melaka River, the Melaka Tree, her stories and her events will always be in my heart. After all, home is always the most beautiful place.”
'Rasa Melaka The Musical' runs till Oct 31, 2020, at Panggung Bangsawan Melaka, 20 Jalan Munshi Abdullah, Kampung Jawa, Melaka. Showtime is 8pm (Tuesday to Thursday), 3pm and 8pm (Friday to Sunday) and tickets are priced at RM68 (for Malaysians) and RM88 (non-Malaysians). Student and senior discounts and a VIP deal are available. Buy tickets here.
This article first appeared on June 3, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.