881- A winning stage number

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From left: Guan Yin (Nat Ho), Min Min (Joanna Dong), Aunty Ling Yi (Audrey Luo) and Yan Yan (Judee Tan)

“One person, one half. One half of passion and struggle. One half of faith and belief. One half of joy and sorrow. One half of love and sacrifice. Two halves. One sisterhood. Forever.”

A tale of togetherness, fervor, and seduction revolving around 2 sisters and mute yet charming man set in the local getai backdrop left many teary-eyed at the Esplanade Theatre when it opened on Apr 15.

The diverse assemblage of mid-20s to 50s turned up on a Friday night to witness the transformation of 881, the top-grossing film that captured the hearts of many Singaporeans in 2007, into an exquisite and engaging Hokkien/Mandarin musical.

Initially, many might have been disappointed with the change of cast from the well loved original, but most quickly found consolation in the comical and beguiling new actors who churned out one surprise after another. Director of the film version of 881, which sounds like Papaya in Mandarin, Royston Tan was also in the crowd to lend his support to the production as a consultant for the musical.

The musical introduced the protagonists, elder Papaya Sister Yan Yan (Judee Tan) and younger Papaya sister Min Min (Joanna Dong), and their sudden ascent into stardom on the getai circuit. These live showcases of song, dance and entertainment are staged annually during the seventh lunar month as a form of paying their respects to the ghosts during the Hungry Ghost Festival.

Aided by natural and supernatural characters, the former being ex-songstress Aunty Ling Yi (Audrey Luo) and her mute son Guan Yin (MediaCorp actor Nat Ho), while the latter was Xian Gu (Lindy Chia) who took pity on the sisters and had decided to bless them with getai prowess with the use of magic feathers, the 2 sisters gain renown on these makeshift stages.
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The 3 bearded celestials, Fu Lu Shou, were also introduced to the musical as they played out as meticulous beings watching the entire story of the Papaya sisters unfold, giving their opinions every now and then.

To complicate matters, sibling rivalry goes on overdrive as both women fall for Guan Yin, when their blessings were conditional on them not ever being in love. For a mute however, he gets to sing 2 songs in a strange twist that starstruck fans of the newly actor-turned-singer are grateful for.

Chaos ensues as Guan Yin falls for the demure Min Min, even as Yan Yan pursues him relentlessly, leading to much pushing and pulling between the 3, drunken episodes, and blunders. A soap opera-variety terminal illness is the fate of one sister.

Then, to add tension in the musical Duah Gee (popular cross-dressing actor and DJ Dennis Chew Chong Qing) enters the picture with another fruit-named pair of sisters. The Durian Sisters from Romania, Liew Liew (Kluane Saunders) and Lian Lian (Rayann Condy) – when put together say Durian in Mandarin – make for intense competition, specializing in English songs with a Hokkien/Mandarin twist.

As the plot was familiar to many, what stood out was the staging and direction under Goh Boon Teck, one of the best known, multiple award-winning local theatre directors. His works, comprising of many cross-cultural showcases, allowed a visionary and inspired touch to 881 The Musical.

A vibrant spectrum of carefully choreographed performance set bearing garish costumes made out of sequins, feathers and vivacious headpieces by costume designer Saksit Pisalasupongs from Tube Gallery, Bangkok, introduced Xian Gu, the arch enemy and sister of Aunty Ling Yi, alongside with song and dance.

The musical fast-forwards to 2 years later, spelling out how the sisters became successful and renowned in the getai world after being blessed by Xian Gu. At the same time, the complicated love triangle between the sisters and Guan Yin, whom they were affectionate with from the beginning was unveiled, tangled even further with their promise to Xian Gu to never fall in love else the spell she had cast on them backfires.

The choreography of song and dance by Farhan Hassan, who had done numerous large-scale choreographies for Chingay, SYF and NDP ’08, was impeccable as the cast members delivered the lyrics to freshly released second theme song for the musical ‘Do Not Give Up’, as well as classic getai tunes such as ‘Lotus Flower’. Of course, the theme song from the film ‘One Half/Yi Ren Yi Ban’ also played a big part in bringing the audience to tears as memories of the well-loved movie were brought into mind.

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Finale performances by the Papaya Sisters

The set was also flawlessly planned out to portray the HDB flats and void decks, making the musical more relatable to the audience, switching to colourful and fanciful when it came to the getai scenes, with the help of bright lights and costume details.

The finale was slowly built up by more complications of the heart, health, and passion for singing. In comparison to the film, there were many unexpected eye-openers such as a very tasteful Singaporean rendition of Lady Gaga’s ‘Poker Face’ by the Durian Sisters, as well as quirky costumes that consisted of dancers with modern architectural headpieces portraying the Marina Bay Sands Resort, Singapore Flyer, and the Esplanade. The Singapore Tourism Board would be proud.

The full 120-minute musical ended as the supposedly comedic performance turned into a tragedy, with younger sister Min Min struggling to complete her last song to overthrow the Durian Sisters.

As the translation of the theme song ‘One Half/Yi Ren Yi Ban’ tells you, the passion for getai shone through the Papaya sisters, till death did them apart.

Tickets for the shows, which have had their run extended to May 1 are available at Sistic from $40 up. Click here for more details

About Francesca Tay

A barely 5'1 quirky girl that thinks that her name is too complicated for her own good, Francesca enjoys fashion, old movies, good music, any form of Shakespeare and a good cup of coffee anytime. Too often you can find her fantasizing about seeing her favourite bands live in concert, especially Mew. Some might call her a dreamer because she wants to try many different things in life, but hey, who doesn't? Previously an editor in The Urbanwire, she has since stepped down but is still declaring her loyalty as a contributing writer.

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