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Scared of ghostly musical

Ghost story enthralled with stage spectacle and talents

Published: 27/05/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Outlook

Haunting theatre-goers now is Mae Nak Prakanong: The Musical, whose omnipresent media promotion raised a high bar of expectation. Gleefully, on its debut last week, the ghostly show tune kept its promise by offering stage spectacles full of spine-chilling and magical moments, an emotional joyride that ran between horror, romance and laughter, and star magnets that came with acting and singing talents. Takonkiet Viravan's seventh musical is indeed a fun and memorable experience for those who wish to be scared and then scream.

Despite such theatrical excitement throughout the 150-minute performance, what I found missing, however, were the subtle moments that would allow me, and probably other audiences, to enter in the head and sink into the hearts of the lead characters due to fast-forward-like pace and disproportionate libretto.

Influenced by TV-editing style, the pace was quite speedy and overwhelmed by many stories. Nak and Mak's romance and hardship _ her accidental death during child labour, her resurrection, the reunion between the two, Mak's revelation and Nak's vengeance (phew!) _ were swiftly recounted in a 90-minute packed time frame.

Such is understandable because the story of this legendary ghost is already well-known through the popularisation of over 20 films, a few TV soaps, several plays and even an opera. But the team, be it the director, the art director or three librettos, should still retell the story at a proper pace for audiences to tune-in with the characters' feelings and notions _ the vital connection to lead the audience throughout the show.

Particularly in Act 1, before I got myself into the character's shoes, I was taken by storm to another scene _ sometimes with totally abrupt change of moods, such as snappy transitions from horror-tone-setting overture (great opening, indeed!) to cheerful Loy Krathong dance, and from dramatic ballads like Chan Ja Ror Thur ("I'll Wait") to upbeat-mixed-narration Mai Chu, Ya Lop Lue ("Not Believe, Not Disdain"), which told, rather than showed, how spooky the ghost was. However, all horrifying scenes later on were well-designed and worked out energetically. The soft-hearted audience screamed when the ghost unexpectedly appeared here and there, on and off the stage.

The return on Act 2 effectively picked up the dramatic hype where it left off in Act 1, but gradually and regretfully declined to normalcy, instead of reaching for a climax in the end. In fact, Act 2 appeared a bit dragged as most essences were already revealed in the first act. It now focused on how to get rid of the evil spirit and was seasoned with crowd-pleasing jokes and melodramatic sentiments. Luckily, it upsurged again at the near end when the couple crooned the star-crossed-lover song, Orm Kod Krung Sud Tai, ("Last Embrace") to vow for tear-jerking effects from the audience. I would have wept, had I felt connected with their loss from the beginning.

Music composition is always a tough challenge mainly due to the nature of Thai intonation. During the one-decade vogue of musical theatres in Thailand, Saravuth Lertpanyanuj has always been a musical force behind Takonkiet's successes. He has apparently learned the ropes and tried to outdo himself in new productions, especially in Kanglang Parb ("Behind the Painting"). With a successful reception, it is clear that he has developed his sure-bet formula and comfort zone. He used more reprises and set each tone for main character. His comical melodies, apparently inspired by Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Weber's fast and playful numbers in their early hits, worked quite well with Thai audiences. However, in Mae Nak, some of his music, especially the duets, begin to sound similar to the ones from previous musicals.

In my mind, since Mae Nak was entirely set approximately 150 years ago, it naturally demands special characters of resonance. Despite the smart use of Thai, Java and Raman flutes to create Thai ambience, a marriage between Western music and Thai lyrics _ by Vichien Tantipimonpan _ did not go well in this show. The contemporary lingos and pop sounds at times sounded awkward and overwrought, especially songs written for the midwife character. The two composers could have used more Thai sounds, or even assigned one musical accent for each major character.

Having said this, such West-and-East sound hybridisation is definitely done by choice, because such pop style generally pleases Thai ears and music industry. Four major numbers Orm Kod, Chan Ja Ror Thur, Ru Tang Ru and Tang Kon Tang Pai ("Separated Ways") already have their radio and music video versions, and will probably make it to the top of a pop music chart and Karoke venues, but not the apex of this musical performance.

The gem of the show is of course lead actress Myria "Nat" Benedetti as charming and convincing Mae Nak. Besides her flawless beauty, she brought on the stage her power-house lungs and years of acting crafts. Her vocalisation is well-accented and her movement _ be they walking or flying _ are captivating as the audience could not predict what tricks she had in store. With this role, she successfully marked her special place in Thai "theatreland" as a musical star.

Lead actor Arnatphol Sirichumsaeng as Mak has more than a well-defined, six-pack body. Surely, the winner of the singing contest, The Star3, could act, and usually did well in his solo numbers, though he sometimes had a problem in keeping in sync with the ensemble and hitting high notes. Didn't the composers spot this early on?

Alas, singer Tik Chiro's "presentational" acting and playful vocalisation overclouded his potential to soar in the role of an exorcist. It's a pity, though, to see diva Suda Chuenban, as a wicked midwife, and sweet vocalist and gifted musical actress Panadda Ruengwut, as broken-hearted Soi, performed just a few numbers, which they both belt out dramatically and impressively.

In fact, it was two famous comedians from the TV sit-com, Pen Tor, Thongthong Mokjok and Oud Pentor _ who spiced up the show with proportionate gags _ that did not overkill the mood of the story or overshadow the others. Their fun number, Vitee Ni Phi ("How To Escape Ghosts") created some applauding impact.

Spirits of good teamwork were obvious during seamless scene changes and practical special effects for stage spectacle. Art director Sasawat Boonyapun and his stage design team created magic on the live performance, from a movable two-storey traditional Thai house to a magnificent temple, and defying gravity throughout the scenes. However, overuse of two-storey houses as well as full-frontal exposure can overkill the reliability of the performance.

For me, there is no doubt about director Takonkiet's effortless strive to uplift his quality musical production to the same par as a Broadway-styled musical. But with his mastery in hybridisation of Western art forms and Thai contents and local talents, the director, aka "Boy", should be proud to call his baby a contemporary Thai-style musical theatre and even trademark it as a Boy-styled musical, as he is deservedly entitled to such an honour now that his seventh child, Mae Nak Prakanong: The Musical, casts off its devilish spell over Thai audiences. Through word of mouth, I am certain that the musical will enjoy its hot-cake-like demands for high possibility of show extension.

Wait! I already heard an eerie whisper _ mooore showssss on the wayyyy.

'Mae Nak Prakanong: The Musical', is being staged at Muang Thai Rachadalai Theatre, Esplanade shopping centre (MRT Thailand Cultural Centre) from Wednesdays to Sundays at 7:30pm until June 21 (with English supertitle), and at 2pm on weekends. Tickets are 500 to 2,800 baht. Call 02-262-3456, or visit

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