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Theatre Review (Singapore): ‘Hotpants’ by Dick Lee

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Dick Lee’s Hotpants is playing at the Drama Centre August 14 – 30 2014.

With book, music and lyrics by well-known musician Dick Lee, Hotpants first premiered in 1997 and tells the tale of growing up in Singapore in 1972, when change was all around. Three schoolmates, Penny (Cheryl Tan), Daphne (Kimberly Chan), and Sharon (Tabitha Nauser) decide to enter the school’s Talentime. Despite internal conflicts and trouble with parental units, the girls find a way to make it through this trying time unscathed.

Chan, Nauser and Tan as the school girls entering their school's Talentime

Chan, Nauser and Tan as the schoolgirls entering their school’s Talentime

This 2014 revival of Hotpants is funny, with both slapstick moments and witty lines. I mentioned in my review of last year’s High Class that Nikki Muller reminds one of Mary Tyler Moore, and in this musical, Muller looks even more like MTM with her flip-fringe ’70s hairdo and retro outfits. Aside from the physical resemblance, Muller doesn’t disappoint in her singing and acting as she injects the correct amount of humour and pathos into her delivery of both lyrics and dialogue.

It also has to be said that the Singaporean accent, and I am referring to the accent found among Singaporeans who speak English as a first language, is perhaps one of the hardest accents to imitate, not unlike the South African accent, because it’s an accent developed out of several influences.

Nikki Muller (4th from left) sports a convincing Singaporean accent

Nikki Muller (4th from left) sports a convincing Singaporean accent

The Singaporean accent is largely dependent on what one speaks as one’s primary language, and for those who speak English as their mother tongue, it is an accent that isn’t quite as crisp as a British one (although they follow British pronunciation), but neither is it the same as the accent of Indian or Chinese nationals. And it’s also not what you hear from Malay speakers. Much like the South African accent, the Singapore accent is unique and hard to imitate.

Hence it was a very pleasant surprise to see Muller sport an extremely convincing Singaporean accent in this musical. Muller has a natural Filipino accent, and you don’t hear a trace of that here. Instead she sounds 100% Singaporean, a testimony to her skill at fully carrying a portrayal to fruition.

Muller plays Suzy, mother to Nauser’s Sharon. Denise Tan and Dwayne Tan play Daphne’s parents, and Eleanor Tan who portrays Penny’s widowed mother. Ebi Shankara’s sleazy Principal Pereira makes for tons of laughs, especially in scenes where Pereira interacts with his secret lover – Suzy.

Although the first half of this musical doesn’t boast musical numbers we’ve come to expect from multi-award-winning Dick Lee, as the songs lack memorable melodies and that “oomph” that often accompanies his music, the second half is a welcome surprise.

Muller and Shankara performing the tango Sin

Muller and Shankara performing the tango “Sin”

The second half of the musical is funnier, and with catchier songs. One standout song is the tango-laden “Sin” (you can never go wrong with a seductive tango!) that uncovers the taboo liaisons among some of the parents in this tale. Brimming with sexy energy and seedy confessions, and helped along by its four performers, “Sin” is a song that entices with a strong hold, right from the first chord.

Cheryl Tan as Penny, performing Changes

Cheryl Tan as Penny, performing “Changes”

Cheryl Tan who plays Penny shows off her crystal clear sweet voice and stands out, especially in the closing song “Changes”.

And “changes” is the theme celebrated in this musical. Singapore has changed so much since 1972, but students still bicker in 2014, and there are still people stuck in unfulfilling marriages and relationships, thereby making Hotpants still relevant and exciting today.

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

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