'Tis the Season to See Folly
So many potshots have been taken at the expense of Singapore's smash hit getai movie 881 that any spoof is bound to feel like overkill. Fortunately, overkill is what Jonathan Lim's brainchild Chestnuts does best. As the uncontested titan of the parody genre, its latest edition, Chesty Nutty Bang Bang: Hairspray of The Phoenix, romps into town with a bigger, star-studded cast and scintillating new spoofs.
Before we delve into the play proper, I must credit the geniuses behind the Chestnuts program. In an age of glossy, overpriced booklets chockfull of monotonous biographies and overlong histories, The (complimentary, might I add) Chestnuts Ultimate Guide to phacebook is pitched perfectly to an audience in the mood for some uninhibited, raucous fun. With its bawdy take on the facebook interface, and a kitschy "handy-cut-out guide to superphoking" that invites you to "throw a bigoted NUS Law professor" at your fellow facebook-er, this Ultimate Guide is loaded with awesome detail that is a sheer delight to thumb through not just once, but many times.
Chesty Nutty Bang Bang has fingers in everything, from the 377A controversy to the tepid revival of Beauty World. Instead of milking cheap laughs from every noteworthy highlight of last year, producer Adrian Tan and actor-director Jonathan Lim have created extended, and consequently more refined and nuanced parodies of its most compelling events. The result is throwaway theatre at its finest. 88251, arguably the show's winning spoof, anchors its snarky pop culture and political references in a hilarious mash-up of Royston Tan's 881 and Ng Yi-Sheng's controversial play about former pornstar Annabel Chong, 251. The juxtaposition of sex siren Chong and clueless wide-eyed Big Papaya (one of the original getai sisters in the movie) is priceless comedy; so is the sisters' Hokkien rendition of Rihanna's dance anthem Umbrella.
What is particularly striking about Chesty Nutty is that it's not all witty farce: when it's not trying to make you laugh, it will charm your socks off. Another mash-up, this time of book-turned-movie Harry Potter and musical-turned-movie Hairspray, is more fascinating in its exploration of the cast's other talents than its mockery of these box office hits. Celina Rosa Tan is a revelation here, juggling the high notes and deliberately garbled lyrics of Hairspray impressively. Jonathan Lim's interpretation of Hairspray's larger-than-life housewife Edna Turnbald is a remarkably nuanced performance that finds the heart beneath the fat suit. It doesn't hurt that he matches Tan's soaring vocals with a sophisticated baritone too.
Spliced between these longer sequences are Chestnuts' multimedia fillers, notorious for their lazy execution and sheer unfunny-ness. However, I am pleased to report that this year, despite several mishaps, these fillers deliver a massive truckload of funny. In fact, spoofs like the droll symphonic soundbites of Nokia's reedy ringtones and the Heroes' premonition of exorbitant cab fares are flashes of comic brilliance that even upstage some of this year's main parodies.
Ultimately, Chestnuts' success hinges on the comic timing and precision of its cast. Throughout the years, Tan and Lim have experimented with different combinations of actors with varying degrees of success. This year's casting is a fast, frothy exercise in legerdemain: losing Idol finalist Joakim Gomez plays various Idol personas while Yeo Yann Yann, one of the Papaya sisters in 881, plays an aspiring getai singer in 88251. Gleefully abandoning all restraint, taste and politeness, this edition's sextet never loses its energy or verve throughout the sprawling two-hour production, skipping from one parody to the next with consummate ease. They also deliver excellent individual performances: Gomez's turn as a Malaysian go-go boy working in a Thai cabaret is as outrageously campy as Yeo's performance of Annabel Chong; while Tan bears an uncanny resemblance to Hairspray's boundary-breaking Tracy in the same way Lim does to big mama Edna.
Ironically, the nuance that Chesty Nutty displays hitherto is also the show's biggest downfall. Tan and Lim gamble that their audience will be familiar enough with the subject matter to appreciate their extended spoofs. At times, it doesn't pay off. Parts of the Beauty World parody alienate viewers unable to identify dramatic motifs like the jade pendant, more specific details of the musical's plot, and songs other than its signature cha-cha-cha number. In achieving specificity at the expense of their general appeal, several Chesty Nutty gags are lost on the audience, and the atmosphere in the theatre flags considerably.
Nevertheless, I crown this side-splitting achievement with five stars,
a rating not so much cast on theatrical merit as it is in the spirit
of Chesty Nutty's infectious irreverence. And who is to say
that this production does not deserve it, when there is an argument
of faultlessness for its every fault: several spoofs are so bad they
work, while those that don't still induce a smile, a giggle or an exclamatory
"What!?" caught between laughter and incredulity. Chestnuts'
mission is to take nothing, including and especially itself, seriously;
the brilliant irony is that it undertakes this task with perfect seriousness.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /