Bringing a touch of pantomime spirit to the Lunar New Year.
While pantomimes are traditionally Christmas affairs, Wild Rice’s latest one has brought that same holiday cheer and spirit to the Lunar New Year. Directed by Glen Goei, with a book by Dwayne Lau, The Amazing Celestial Race is a musical retelling of the origins of the Chinese Zodiac. As the Jade Emperor holds a legendary race to determine the twelve animals of the zodiac, the competition heats up as our racers speed to the finish line, fending off diabolical detours, natural obstacles, and each other, as they vie for victory and to be remembered for generations to come.
Opening with the lively and exuberant number “The Amazing Celestial Race” (composed by music director Julian Wong), it’s not long before the cast introduces us to each and every one of the animals they play. There’s the Monkey, Dragon and Dog (Dwayne Lau); the Rabbit, Tiger and Snake (Audrey Luo, who even pays homage to her ‘ancestors’ Aunty Green and Mama White); the Horse and Cat (Tia Guttensohn); the Goat and the Rat (Victoria Chen); and the Rooster, Pig and Ox (Andrew Lua).
Excitement is all around as the race is about to begin, with projections used to show the animals heading to the starting point, ensuring that there’s no break in the flow while the cast gets ready. Much like any major sporting event, we even get emcees – two birds (Dwayne and Victoria) represented by Wayang Kulit-style projections with a bird’s eye view of the action. Giving a ‘live’ running commentary, they introduce us to the movers and shakers, makes us feel like we’re in the arena with the action happening all around us, and find out who’s the fashionable one, who will stop at nothing to succeed, and even their secrets to winning the race. Each animal is well-characterised, with some especially endearing – the Dog and Pig, for example, emphasised how much they were here to enjoy the journey rather than focus on the win, in stark contrast to competitive frontrunners Tiger and Dragon showing off their fierce rivalry.
As they approach the raging river, we wonder will it live up to its reputation of being that one checkpoint to determine who will emerge first? It’s a joy to watch the various animals figuring out their strategies for crossing, and it is those who grab the bull by the horns that end up with a head start. Take for example the sleek GPS-style visual we get as the Rabbit pops up on the other side of the river from the rabbit hole. As a ‘Lobang Queen’ and ‘TikTok extraordinaire’, naturally, she even gets her very own catchy TikTok-inspired song.
Faced with a crisis in the form of a burning village, in swoops the majestic Dragon, presented as a traditional dragon dance ‘flying’ through the theatre, well-coordinated and awe-inspiring. During this difficult period where we are not able to see such performances in public spaces, we were particularly thankful for this, harkening back to happier times. Teamwork is key to saving the entire village, with the Dragon and Tiger putting aside their rivalry and working together, one extinguishing the flames and the other rescuing a baby from the waters and reuniting it with its mother, in a collaborative lesson we can all learn from.
Of the cast, it is Andrew that stands out. Being given roles he had to get creative with was a challenge he took on with gusto, and gave it his all to bring out and make each character his own, whether it was the fabulous Rooster or the courageous Ox. When we return to the river, we see him as the intelligent Pig, ingenious as he watches the Snake shed her skin to seductive music, coming up with the idea to blow the skin up as a float to get across the river. And as the remaining animals each find their own ways to cross, we think about how in life, we too all have our own obstacles to cross.
At the finish line, the sly Rat lives up to her reputation and sneaks her way to a controversial first place win, with each of the animals following and marking their position in the zodiac. With wise words from the Ox, and with a lesson from the Goat to always respect our elders, each of the animals is given their time in the spotlight. Transitioning from her directorial stint on Bull to an actor here, throughout the performance, our eyes are on Victoria as she shines across her roles, fully embodying each animal, and excelling at delivering quick retorts and interacting with the audience.
Down to our last contestant, we cheer and encourage the Pig as he edges towards the finishing line, marking the final animal to be entered into the zodiac. Their reward, beyond eternal glory, is a chance to meet the Jade Emperor. As they express how much they wanted to please the Jade Emperor (and even find out Wild Rice’s unique take on how ‘lucky’ the Cat became), we can’t help but wonder about the ‘race’ we run in our own lives; what is it we live for, stand for, who are the important people in our lives, and why exactly we’re running this race in the first place.
Ending on an exuberant high note, The Great Celestial Race marks another strong outing for Wild Rice, one that shines especially bright in these difficult times. Wild Rice’s pantomimes are usually full house affairs, but now at just 20% of its maximum capacity, it’s even more impressive how the cast manages to bridge the empty space and fill the theatre with warmth as they connected with us, making sure everyone brings home a little more joy after watching this. To ensure time for smoother transitions, throughout the performance, there’s effective and creative use of audience engagement during these moments, an inspired move from director Glen, with stage manager Jeanette Chong and her stagehands assisting in the efficiency of the actual scene and costume changes.
The team should be proud of what they’ve achieved, producing a show that’s energetic, fun and evidently made with love and passion from the cast. Alongside a lively, heartwarming script and catchy songs that got the audience clapping and moving along, this is the kind of quality pantomime we’ve come to expect from the company. Delivering on production value and maintaining the high standards they’ve established for themselves, Wild Rice’s choice to go big has paid off, with both cast and crew giving it their all in every performance, giving it their all to be in a show they can be proud of. With The Amazing Celestial Race, Wild Rice has crafted a wonderful, engaging family-friendly show that is sure to put a smile on your face and add that extra spark to your post-Lunar New Year days.
Photo Credit: Ruey Loon
The Amazing Celestial Race runs from 19th February to 21st March 2021 at Wild Rice @ Funan. Tickets available from SISTIC