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Magic Paintbrush


The Magic Paintbrush


reviewed by James Koh

Music by Kenneth Lyen
Words by Brian Seward
Date: 1 June 2000
Venue: The Drama Centre, Singapore

Rating: *** and a half (out of 5 stars)

There are two things that made the Magic Paintbrush -- Singapore's first locally written, full scale musical puppet show -- such a wonderful piece of children's theatre. One of them is that it did not talk down to its target audience of young children. There wasn't any form of condescension on the part of the production, a lack of overt and preachy didacticism. Instead, an enchanting story of magical proportions was simply told and gently revealed, allowing the children to take a delight in the tale and make their own judgements.

The other thing about the Magic Paintbrush, Imaginarts' sophomore production, is that is was a children's musical that adults could enjoy as well. Like a good Disney cartoon, it appealed to the adults with its funny one liners and clever and knowing references to various aspects of pop culture, be it the Spice Girls, the movie 'Titanic' or the film 'Jaws'. And like all good children's theatre, it made the adults wish that they could cast off the defensive layers that form with the advent of adulthood and return to the pre-lapsarian state of childhood once again.

Well, OK, maybe there is one more thing that made this musical so enjoyable: the precocious puppets that were used in the production. These puppets were created by Frankie Yeo, the Creative Director of Visual Impact, Singapore's first professional puppet makers. They ranged from the small and cute to the large and grotesque, and were beautifully crafted as to rival the Muppets of Jim Henderson. From small cuddly flowers and chickens, to a towering spectre called The Spirit of Creation, to various Chinese villagers, these puppets filled the production with infectious fun and hilarious energy with their comic antics and lovable personas.

Moreover, these puppets were used ingeniously and imaginatively. Not only were they employed as a way of commenting on the story, but also, they made various scenes truly surreal and phantasmagoric, like the ultra-violet illuminated underwater scene or the appearance of the intimidating Spirit of Creation.

The Magic Paintbrush tells the story of the old Chinese folk tale about a poor but talented painter -- called Ma Liang -- who receives a gift of a magic paintbrush. And with this paintbrush with its ability to paint things to life, the young boy uses it to help his fellow villagers survive under the tyrannical rule of the greedy Emperor. Framing this narrative, is the story of a young Singaporean girl called Toni, who is placed under extreme pressure from her father to excel in the sciences and to renounce all forms of creativity. This is linked to the main narrative when the Toni is transported to the world of Ma Liang with the aid of a faulty computer.

The lead role of Ma Liang was performed by Joni Tham, who was able to maintain a very good chemistry with the many puppets that she had to interact with. But the evening truly belonged to Amber Simon and Gani Abdul Karim as the two bumbling tax collectors of the Emperor. The slapstick humour and physical comedy they provided was extremely entertaining and added a note of boisterous fun. And it has to be said that Lucretia Pereira as the voice of the Phoenix was truly enchanting, and in songs like the gospel-tinged 'Spirit of Creation', she gave a rousing and energetic performance.

Director Brian Seward was highly skillful in making full use of the limited space of the Drama Centre, at the same time maintaining enough movement on stage so as to capture the short attention span of the children. Meanwhile, the music composed by Kenneth Lyen and arranged by Bang Wenfu, as what is de rigueur of a children's musical, was toe-tappingly tuneful.

There were a couple of minor gripes I had about the production. One is the fact that at 80 minutes without an interval, the play was slightly too long, such that certain scenes started to drag. The other is that at times the use of recorded music made the musical seem like a huge karaoke performance, such that certain songs lost their intensity or were forced to end without sounding climatic. Understandably financial and logistical difficulties prevented the production from using live music, but one wished that it had not been so. And the requisite happy ending, was a little too forced and contrived, making the musical end in a slightly flat note.

But these were as I said, indeed minor gripes, and could not and did not spoil what was indeed a delightful and enjoyable performance.

[This review first appeared in The Flying Inkpot.]