Peach perfect end to Wild Rice’s 2021 season.
Peaches have always held great symbolic meaning in Asian culture. Not only are they associated with longevity and good health; they have also been said to have the power to ward off evil and misfortune. With the last two chaotic years we’ve had since the start of the pandemic, it seems only right that Wild Rice is taking inspiration from the Japanese mythology of Momotaro (or ‘Peach Boy’) for for their year end pantomime, heralding the end of darkness and better days ahead.
Directed by Glen Goei and written by Dwayne Lau (also assistant director), Momotaro and the Magnificent Peach follows Momo (Ryan Ang), a 15-year old boy who’s tired of living in idyllic Peach Paradise, where nothing ever goes wrong. That is, until the wildlife starts dying when a wave of pollution sweeps the island. To the chagrin of his elderly parents, Momo decides to set off on a journey and save the day.
Paying homage to its roots, the creative team have sprinkled the performance with plenty of loving references to Japanese pop culture and tradition (clearly felt with the anime-heavy playlist of pre-show music). The opening sequence for example, is performed through bunraku puppetry, while Wong Chee Wai’s set design incorporates shoji-style sliding doors and distinctly Japanese lanterns. Most clearly, Tube Gallery’s costumes complete the Japanese references, with printed kimonos for the villagers, and Momo’s orange tracksuit and blonde hair a clear reference to beloved anime ninja Naruto.
As is Wild Rice’s usual style, Momotaro and the Magnificent Peach goes above and beyond its source and inserts plenty of clever socio-political commentary to make it feel relevant for a contemporary audience. The growing problem of environmental damage through irresponsible dumping is clearly felt throughout the show, with piles of trash littering the stage and spilling out into the front row seats, while the resulting problems cause the citizens of Peach Paradise to enter a circuit breaker (sound familiar?), with several villagers commenting how the government can’t make up its mind.
At its heart though, this is a family-friendly show that’s all about the power of friendship. The bulk of the show focuses on Momo’s growth as a character, and how his kind heart allows him to befriend his three animal companions. As our protagonist, Ryan Ang captures Momo’s initial bratty but good-hearted attitude, and carries the character through his arc. While there are times the character itself feels flat, there is a clear sense of change by the time we reach the end scenes, and an assuredness that Momo has become a better version of himself than when we started.
Each of the three animal companions may be based on a Japanese animal, but are given distinct personality traits that allow each ensemble member to leave their own impression and impact. As Hiroto the crane, Greg Sim speaks and moves with a formality that represents the crane’s grace, while Sharon Sum, as Aiko the Shiba Inu, adopts a crude, Ah Lian facade that belies a fierce loyalty. Of the three however, it is Vester Ng that continually steals the spotlight as Yuki, with his physicality and rapid fire speech pattern embodying the snow monkey’s nervous energy, and managing to show clear expressions in spite of the heavy red makeup.
On the other hand, no show is complete without its villains, with the red-haired President Oni (Siti Khalijah Zainal) bearing a resemblance to a certain former world leader, with his proclamations of ‘Make Akiba Great Again’, and his right hand fox, Captain Kit (Audrey Luo). While Audrey doesn’t get too many opportunities to show off her vocals in this role, her character is perhaps the most layered one of them all, as she goes from villain to warrior of justice who’s lost her path, showcasing mercy for the innocent and standing up for what she believes in, even if it means betraying her boss.
Of the cast, Siti K has been given the meatiest role, and her efforts did not go unnoticed. Due to Oni’s shapeshifting skills, throughout the show, Siti undergoes the most elaborate costume changes, going from the flaming robes of Oni to a Sailormoon-inspired disguise. Her transformations are complete, not only in her outfits, but even her physicality and voice, differentiating between Oni’s gruff, heavy personality, and an influencer’s faux cutesy voice, skipping across the stage on top of having multiple songs centre around her. Even with such a demanding role, Siti gives it her all in every scene, and comes across as an animated villain brought to life, and all too easy to become endeared to the sheer ludicrousness of her antics and cartoonish personality.
Compared to some of Wild Rice’s more song-heavy pantomimes, Momotaro and the Magnificent Peach features just 5 original compositions, all by Elaine Chan. Each song has been carefully chosen and crafted to add a burst of colour to their respective scene: upbeat opening number ‘Welcome to Peach Paradise!’ is a full company number that sets the high energy for the rest of the performance, while ‘Let Me Influence You, Baby’ takes its cue from J-Pop songs to deliver an unexpected number filled with sailor uniform-clad schoolgirls. With Ryan in a lead singing role with Wild Rice for the first time, there’s even a solo number just for him, with ‘Who Am I?’ reminiscent of an introspective Broadway composition to give him the opportunity to show off his vocal work.
As Wild Rice’s 20th production in their Funan theatre, it feels as if they’ve finally figured out how best to deal with the space’s unique characteristics. Not only do they capitalise on the smaller space to create a sense of intimacy, but they also overcome the limitations brought about by the theatre’s shape, with Wong Chee Wai’s set design providing backdrops at full height to create the illusion of size and depth to the space. Taking a leaf from previous pantomime Peter Pan, expect to see harnesses lifting actors into the air, and some other production tricks that remind audiences of the magic of seeing live theatre.
Above all, Momotaro and the Magnificent Peach works because it’s fun. This is evident from the full commitment of the cast, and how they give it their all. Certainly, some of the biggest highlights are the fight scenes, where unique weapons from sais to fans start appearing, and the characters engage in a brawl, Street Fighter style, as they leap and jump across the stage, outsmarting each other with a new move each time.
There is so much joy that comes from the sheer imagination that goes into the scenes, from references to Sadako and Money Heist, over the top morph sequences, and how its happy ending ultimately leaves us reassured and filled with good vibes. After his work on The Amazing Celestial Race, Dwayne Lau proves that he is an asset to Wild Rice, with his work always bringing a spark of light to these troubled times.
Photo Credit: Ruey Loon
Momotaro and the Magnificent Peach runs from 25th November 2021 at Wild Rice @ Funan. Tickets available from SISTIC.
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