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Theatre Review (Singapore): Hansel & Gretel by Alfian Sa’at and Elaine Chan

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W!ld Rice‘s pantomime Hansel & Gretel is running at Drama Centre from November 22 to December 15 2012.

Peppered with localized news events and Singlish here and there, Hansel & Gretel (with the titles roles played by Dwayne Tan and Denise Tan respectively) tells the tale of this brother-sister duo who find themselves abandoned in Mandai forest when their father (Dwayne Lau) falls in love with conniving Cassandra (Vernetta Lopez) who plots to get rid of the children she abhors.

The siblings then come across The Chef (Sebastian Tan) and his assistant Nicki Minah (Siti Khalijah) who live in a house made of goodies. But alas, something smells stinky there, when the siblings find they’ve chewed off more (of his delicious house) than they can swallow.

With book and lyrics by the ever talented, multiple award winner Alfian Sa’at and music by prolific composer Elaine Chan, this musical pantomime has a solid structure to ensure a remarkable piece of theatre.

The script is belly-achingly funny, with references to noteworthy local events like the recent Prince William-Kate Middleton “staged” visit to Queenstown and the money-siphoning Pastor and his singing wife. The humour here is very much locally flavoured, and foreigners might find it very difficult to grasp the full effect of the jokes (the foreign reviewer sitting next to me had to have things explained to her every five minutes). While most of the dialogue is in proper English, Singlish does creep in at various moments, so those not in tune with Singlish might find it a bit hard to follow. But if you know a bit of Singlish and about current events here in Singapore, you’ll be blown away by Sa’at’s script, which injects wit and humour into those occurrences.

This reviewer continues to be astonished at the singing calibre we have in our local artistes in various local musicals, and this musical proves no different as Denise Tan tackles with her crystal clear voice songs that have a large range, Sebastian Tan hits notes so powerfully with his vibratos, and Siti Khalijah proves she can be pitch-perfect even while donning different accents. The quality of singing here easily rivals any Broadway or West End musical theatre performance. Chan also has to be credited for creating such lively and uplifting melodies to accompany Sa’at’s thoughtful lyrics.

Two of the standout performers are Vernetta Lopez and Siti Khalijah. Lopez plays Cassandra impeccably, right down to her Singlishized way of speaking as in her constantly referring to Hansel and Gretel’s father as “Stevern” instead of “Steven”. Lopez has great comedic timing and she is best at physical comedy, which her role calls for extensively; hence she really steals the show with her portrayal of the talentless but manipulative Cassandra.

Khalijah vacillates between accents easily, as she plays both Filipino-accented maid Vilma and Malay-accented assistant to The Chef Nicki Minah to perfection. Khalijah also possesses comedic timing and the ability to add humour to her body language and hand gestures which she employs to full effect in her role.

Pam Oei, a stage actor herself, serves as director of this panto, and shows herself more than capable of taking the helm. From her innovative use of W!ld Rice’s First Stage! child actors to further deliver the story (I won’t go further because it’ll take away the surprise) to the characters handing out real food to the audience, Oei shows she’s proficient at knowing how to get the most out of a script and how to keep audiences enthralled from start to finish. It’s hard to believe this is Oei’s directorial debut, for the direction here shows a true gift and the genius of an immensely creative mind.

Along with cute costumes by Moe Kasim and mouthwatering sets by Kelley Cheng, Hansel & Gretel is a superb, funny, and poignant pantomime that will entice and entertain the entire family. Full of jokes that will appeal to anyone from two to 102 (which is not an easy task to do), Hansel & Gretel is a true-blue Singaporean panto too delicious to miss.

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.