A nationalistic musical with high production value that celebrates Malaysia in all its glorious diversity.
KUALA LUMPUR – There are two things that Malaysians will always get fired up about: food, and sport. Taking the latter subject and putting it into the arts, it’s completely possible that Malaysians too can feel a sense of nationalistic pride upon seeing it brought to life onstage.
Based off Chiu Keng Guan’s 2016 film of the same name about Malaysia’s national football team, Ola Bola follows Harimau Malaya as they work through personal struggles and internal strife to emerge champions in their own right, qualifying for the 1980 Olympic Games and bringing national glory to the country.
Director Tiara Jacquelina said in their promo video that the moment you step into the recently refurbished Istana Budaya theatre, you’ll feel as if you’ll have just entered an actual football stadium. She’s not exaggerating – Raja Malek’s production design plants two gigantic screens on either side of the stage, while Danny Hoo’s visual effects provide an ever changing backdrop with each scene. Upon entry, we see a full ‘Stadium Merdeka’ displayed while the entire theatre becomes noisy with the sounds of raucous fans cheering. It’s an effective method of creating the illusion of depth that makes the already huge space seem even larger than it already is, as well as a good means of actually cutting the performance space such that the cast isn’t dwarfed by the immense area of the stage.
Ola Bola’s greatest strength lies in its ability to produce genuine emotion and draw out powerful nostalgia from its emphasis on realism and universal themes. Whether it’s the first moment where an MC emerges onto the ‘pitch’ to deliver an opening address to the audience, all the way to the comic relief, gossipy Kopitiam crew excitedly discussing the previous day’s match, or Zaharah Nakibullah’s football jerseys that feel true to the period and throwback to quintessential 70s attire such as bell-bottom jeans, one feels truly transported back to the heyday of the era and full immersed in the all encompassing experience.
Adzwa’s stylized choreography feels like a natural means of adapting sports for the stage, and incredible given that these sequences were almost all designed for over 20 cast members at a time. Throughout the musical, his choreography effectively recreates the chaos and heightened emotions that happen during a game, with players flipping and jumping and adroitly passing balls around onstage, though perhaps after the first few times, began to feel repetitive. And even when not choreographing football sequences, a visually slick and well-choreographed army training scene involving almost the entire cast made us feel the newfound camraderie and pride displayed by Harimau Malaya as they finally band together as one team.
Mia Palencia’s songs are well composed, each one suiting the scenes, with a particularly energetic number in ‘Ten, Ten, Ten’, as officer workers swiftly rise to perform a huge, Broadway style number as a means for Ali (Luqman Hafidz) to beat a hasty escape to practice. With a stellar live band, not even the sound system could keep the actors down as they poured their hearts into each number. Melissa Ong’s voice, with clear enunciation and projection, manages to soar above it in a powerful number that adds plenty of depth to her character, while Tauke (Brian Chan) and coach Harry (Stephen Rahman-Hughes) duke out their differences in an exciting crescendo of words towards the end of Act 1.
Even in correctly representing the melting pot of personalities and cultures that make up the Malaysian identity, lyrics and lines might have been better standardised to reduce how jarring the clash in intonation and languages can be at times. In spite of this, Ola Bola’s succeeds precisely because of how sports becomes a universal language, inspiring unity across an entire nation amidst such differences. As the run progresses, one can only expect elements such as the stylized football sequences to become much more smoothly integrated, truly bringing both live action and theatrical/projection elements together more organically. Ola Bola has all the elements it requires to become an even greater show that it already is; all it needs is a little more tightening.
Even though historically, this is a story without a happy ending, Ola Bola has nimbly navigated around it to create a show that has the potential to unite a nation as much as both the original events and film did. It’s a musical that prioritises its heart and wears the Malaysian flag proudly upon its metaphorical sleeves, one that treats football with reverence and due respect and truly celebrating the country’s past glories and achievements in an entertaining and genuinely moving way. This got most of the audience members chanting ‘Malaysia, Malaysia’ with pride and passion as they left the theatre. As far as we’re concerned, Enfiniti has definitely scored a goal with Ola Bola.
Performance attended 7/2/18
Ola Bola The Musical plays from 8th February – 11th March 2018 at Panggung Sari Istana Budaya, Jalan Tun Razak, Kuala Lumpur. Tickets available from Galactix.