Low Ngai Yuen, best remembered as the frizzy-haired host of the award-winning TV programme, 3R, continues to flex and hone her directing and writing skills. This time, she’s teamed up with a cappella group director Penny Low to stage a play that has a wicked chorus line. They tell MARTIN VENGADESAN what is in store when The Girl from Ipoh hits town.
SHE calls her quirky creation a “pop musical” and if Low Ngai Yuen and her team deliver The Girl From Ipoh as she’s envisaged it, it should be quite a show.
The storyline is simple: The girl in question is chubby Wong Mei Lee, who imagines herself to look like ... a Carmen Soo. She has grown up confused by her identity in a multi-cultural country. She is someone who is in conflict with her surroundings and yearns for a life outside the small town.
Exposed to the glamour of the Western world, she seeks to shake off her traditional heritage and embrace a different way of life. But in trying to get out of Ipoh, Mei Lee has to deal with her father.
Along the way, the play examines thought-provoking themes. As the publicity write-ups put it: “The play explores an issue that plagues many – when is a Chinese person not Chinese enough? Does speaking English without sounding Chinese make them a traitor to their culture? Or does speaking mat salleh sounding Chinese make them an abomination to the race? Does liking everything Western mean a degradation of everything that is Asian?”
The Girl from Ipoh features Carmen Soo in the title role, who is cast alongside Lee Swee Keong as her father, actor-model Tony Eusoff and Season Chee.
One of the most interesting features of this latest theatrical excursion is that the cast is joined by an a cappella choir playing the “role” of Mei Lee's conscience.
That's the group comprising eight talented women, under the direction of LiT Performers co-founder Penny Low, that's going to provide all fun and the singing.
“(They) are actually the villain of the play,” explained Ngai Yuen in a recent interview. “The choir is not a chorus in the Greek sense, they are part of the action, representing different sides of the lead character. The eight a cappella singers who will be on stage together represent the inner workings of Mei Lee’s mind.”
The eight are Angie Teoh, Anrie Too, Fang Chyi, Nor Hazlin Nor Salam, Colleen Daphne, Priscilla Wong, Karen Tay and Penny Low herself. Penny explained that the nucleus of the group is formed from LiT stalwarts, but are not limited to those performers.
“The singers are not necessarily the same ones who’ve been performing with us over the last five years, although two of us, Karen and myself are founding members. We have had to fit the singers to the required roles.
“In fact, one of our original singers is doing the sound for the show. It’s interesting that our singers are all from varied backgrounds ? we have a contractor, a PR executive, a producer, a student, a lecturer and so on, and their age range from 20 to 40.”
To ensure that the correct balance was found, auditions for the eight roles began in April. “This has been challenging for both the performers and for me as an arranger,” said Penny in an interview on Wednesday, “because we are trying to do something different and the task is to make them brand new to the audience in terms of the musical arrangement, yet reflect the sentiment of the whole play.
“Most songs that we are performing have been re-arranged to suit the group. There is one original song, but generally the music is re-arranged pop tunes, done in a cappella way which is something that’s not been done before.”
“We wanted this to be pop theatre, not like a musical,” added Ngai Yuen, who also wrote the script, “because we want it to be a form of entertainment that the audience can relate to easily. We are trying to broaden the scope of theatre and not make it intellectual and elitist.”
To that end, the choir is not a conventional classical one with all your sopranos, altos and the like.
“You can’t really separate the eight performers into those sort of ranges because we have not done the arrangements in a classical way,” Penny explained. “These are popular songs like The Pussycat Dolls’ Don’t Cha, Prince’s Kiss and even a rock ballad by Meatloaf, but all done in harmony. Our singers are not segregated, with one voice playing the positive aspects of Mei Lee’s thoughts and another voice being negative. Just like our thoughts, they are inter-woven.
“We even have a beat-box, and most songs have undergone a drastic change and are quite unrecognisable from the original. We chop and change ? somebody who does a high register on one song does bass notes for the next. Other groups that do a cappella have a set second voice, set bass, we alternate, because everybody is versatile and takes turns doing bass or percussion. There is a reason why a cappella is the rawest form of music because it’s really just human voices.”
Penny revealed that even the TV advertisements for the play featuring a distorted electric guitar sound, was actually created by a human voice. “We put our singers in front of the speakers – so that they could hear themselves – and said, 'Experiment!'. We have very little finger-snapping and all the sound effects, like the sound of a phone ringing, are done with our voices!”
One wonders if experienced actors like Soo or Lee are comfortable “facing” a character that’s really a choir! Do they at least get to sing back?
“Well,” laughed Ngai Yuen, “Carmen and Lee’s characters attempt to sing but don’t quite! Seriously, I think they were at first a little intimidated because there are eight voices together, but eventually they became good friends.”
So what exactly inspired Penny to do the arrangements ... a little Manhattan Transfer, perhaps?
“Most of the music is inspired by Ngai Yuen’s script,” she replied earnestly. “My thoughts of Ipoh, its freshness and beauty also inspired me. For me, the fusion of English and Chinese sung together is a very important point, because it is a fusion of both worlds.
“I myself don’t speak much Chinese, although I learnt a little Hokkien from my grandparents who were from Ipoh. At one point there’s a Chinese song my mother used to sing to me, merged with Under The Boardwalk that my father used to listen to. We didn’t really want to do something like Manhattan Transfer because it’s already set ? there’s a score you can buy. We wanted to test our creativity and challenge ourselves.
In fact, Penny had to balance her enthusiasm over the project with the desire to keep some surprises in store for the audience. “We have everything from a Chinese nursery rhyme becoming a rap to some really challenging harmonies ? some of these things you’ll have to come and find out for yourself, because we don’t really want to give everything away.”