Italian fairytale proves powerful inspiration for Wild Rice’s annual pantomime.
|Category||Score (out of 10)|
|Direction (Pam Oei)||10|
|Script (Thomas Lim)||9|
|Performance (Mae Elliessa, Ebi Shankara, Siti Khalijah Zainal, Dwayne Lau, Michelle Ler, Vester Ng)||9|
|Music – Composition/Lyrics (Julian Wong / Joel Tan)||9|
|Live Music (Joel Nah, Feri Susanto, Colin Yong, Brandon Wong, Rizal Sanip)||9|
|Choreography (Gino Babagay)||9|
|Set Design (Wong Chee Wai)||8|
|Lighting Design (Mac Chan)||8|
|Sound Design (Shah Tahir)||8|
|Multimedia Design (Koo Chia Meng and Maximilian Liang)||9|
|Costume/Hair/Make Up (Tube Gallery/Ashley Lim/Bobbie Ng)||9|
|Prop Designer (Joyce Gan)||8|
Italian writer Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio has long served as a cautionary tale to warn children about the consequences of telling lies and disobeying one’s parents. To date, it remains one of the most translated and read Italian texts, a timeless fable that carries darkness and light in equal streaks, and makes for the perfect source material for Wild Rice’s annual pantomime.
Directed by Pam Oei, with a script by Thomas Lim, Pinocchio closely follows Collodi’s original narrative, about a lonely toymaker who carves a puppet out of wood. With the help of a blue fairy, the puppet is brought to life, and goes on a quest to become a ‘real boy’. Encountering obstacles such as unscrupulous animals, and a nefarious kidnapper, Pinocchio eventually finds that being real goes beyond the physical, and starts from having a good heart.
Almost as if a natural extension from the ‘wayang timber’ used to form the theatre’s walls, Wong Chee Wai’s set design sees the main stage framed by a rounded arch, surrounded by an explosion of planks that suggests the show’s dynamism and its central play on wood. By now, Wild Rice has seen enough shows that have been staged here, and the set cleanly and smoothly transitions into a richly detailed toyshop for the very first scene. On the ground level, there are window displays and a functioning door, flanked by walls of tools, while even the second level, despite not being used, further immerses audiences in the world of Pinocchio with a storeroom of paraphernalia, ranging from furniture to carved statues.
Even though the same level of physical detail isn’t afforded to other scenes, this is primarily remedied with Koo Chia Meng and Maximilian Liang’s colourful multimedia and animation. A simple projection creates the semblance of a circus big top, or the belly of a whale, where one can almost feel the innards throbbing, complete with dripping stomach acid and flopping fish props. Characters also interact with the animation to make it seem like more than just backdrop, such as paddling on an animated raft, or watching a grassy patch morph into a flooded pond during a song. These are of course, supported by Mac Chan’s lighting design, which appropriately illuminates each scene, from a serene night sky, to the neon-hued wonderland to represent an amusement park-like island.
All of this serves to illustrate Thomas Lim’s well-crafted play, which, since his last pantomime, is proof of how the young playwright has further honed his skills to produce a script that prioritises the story and the values of friendship and family at its heart. At the same time, Pinocchio still manages to make cheeky references to quintessential Singaporean phenomena such as tuition, TikTok and scams, and contains enough punchlines and jokes that will appeal to children and adults alike. Although it works with relatively complex base material, Thomas finds a throughline in how each major character undergoes enough development over the course of the play, never shying away from the story’s darker elements, and championing the strengthening of these interpersonal relationships through overcoming one obstacle after another.
To that end, where Pinocchio really shines brightest is in its indomitable cast, who bring to life Thomas’ script and the catchy and emotional songs across a range of genres, with lyrics by Joel Tan, as composed by Julian Wong and played by the live band (comprising Joel Nah, Feri Susanto, Colin Yong, Brandon Wong, and Rizal Sanip). Among them, Mae Elliessa, as Pinocchio, has the difficult task of capturing the puppet’s ‘wooden’ nature, while imbuing him with enough emotion to feel distinctly human. She succeeds at this, and her Pinocchio grows from performing mere robot moves, to one that feels fully fleshed out and natural by the end of the play, coming to a complete character development. Even with a mask that covers half her face (and has the technical capability to grow and shrink her ‘nose’) and the need to modify her voice to suit a young boy’s, Mae brings the emotion to the table across all her numbers, brimming with hope as she sings ‘A Real Boy’. There is always an air of innocence to her performance paired with inner bravery that makes this Pinocchio completely understandable and relatable, never a brat.
Opposite her, Ebi Shankara stands out as the grounded Gepetto, showing off his range and ability to play different voices in the first number ‘Almost Real’. Throughout the play, Ebi crafts a powerful portrayal of the struggles of being a parent, and strikes a careful balance between exasperation and genuine love. Scenes between Ebi and Mae are some of the most affecting throughout the play, and the ongoing tension between the two is almost always palpable, as they navigate the ups and downs of lying or lecturing, learning how best to handle fallouts and learning from mistakes, but still managing to come together by the end in an emotional reunion.
Supporting them are equally important side characters. Siti Khalijah Zainal comes alive in the role of ‘G-Hopper’, a hip-hop and K-pop obsessed grasshopper accidentally turned big, who follows Pinocchio on his journey. This is the most fun Siti seems to have had in a pantomime role in recent years, and it shows in the joy she exuberates in impressively sharp choreography and her slick, cool attitude. Dwayne Lau undergoes a 180 degree transformation when switching between his dual roles of the Blue Fairy (in-training) and the Don, going from magical, spellcasting drag queen, to a genuinely terrifying, slick villain modelled after Elvis. Finally, Vester Ng and newcomer Michelle Ler, as tricksters Frank Lee and Lucky Lee, don fursuits and use deliberately Singaporean accents to highlight their characters, with a hilarious, tango-inspired number in ‘Half Truths’, poking fun at political euphemisms and white lies.
What all of this is testament to is the skills of director Pam Oei, and how she has brought out the absolute best of her talented cast. The pacing of the show runs at a very comfortable rate, constantly keeping us engaged with the action, while even throwing in a couple of audience interactions we are more than happy to partake in, with the cast making quick japes at audience reactions or even throwing candy to outstretched hands. Even with the fictional premise, the relationships in the play feel as real as they can be, whether it’s the shame of telling a parent you’ve messed up, or the well-executed, controlled chaos of an epic escape scene in Act 2.
Even the First Stage kids forming the ensemble, often feeling tacked on for the sake of it, are all smiles and seem to implicitly trust and enjoy the process of performing onstage, a real challenge to achieve with such young actors, and for them to maintain such high energy till the end of the performance, even during numbers such as ‘Don’t Tell Me What To Do’ that focus almost exclusively on them (which also reflects on choreographer Gino Babagay’s figuring out manageable choreography for all of them to execute, while still looking impressive).
Enthralling in its timeless tale, tickled by contemporary references, and smooth choreography, an enduring and catchy soundtrack, and stellar performances all around, Pinocchio keeps you constantly on your toes and riveted throughout. It would be easy to dismiss a pantomime as just kids’ fare, but with a show like Pinocchio, Wild Rice once again proves that there is place for the pantomime in today’s society, telling the hard truths of what it takes to be a good person and affecting the inner child at the core of your being. Pinocchio proves to be one of Wild Rice’s best pantomimes in the last few years, and a powerful reminder of the importance of family and friendship that will leave you laughing, hopeful, and most of all, enlightened by theatre.
Photo Credit: Ruey Loon
Pinocchio runs from 17th November to 24th December 2022 at the The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre at Wild Rice @ Funan. Tickets and more information available here
Listen to the official cast recording on Spotify