Ramlee musical a smash hit

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P. Ramlee (Sean Ghazi) on a train to Singapore.

All seats for the P. Ramlee musical have been taken, for the duration. DENNIS CHUA reviews the show.

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P. Ramlee (Sean Ghazi) and Saloma (Liza Hanim).

TAKING on the life story of Malaysia’s King of Entertainment is a monster challenge particularly when the country is marking its 50th anniversary.

But executive producer Datin Seri Tiara Jacquelina and Enfiniti Productions successfully created the first major musical on P Ramlee by focusing on the human side.

If one measures success by ticket sales, P. Ramlee The Musical … The Life, The Loves And The Inspiration is certainly a winner, as all seats in Istana Budaya from Oct 18 to Nov 3 were taken on the first night itself.

Trimming Ramlee’s story down to that of a screen idol longing to be loved struck a chord with the audience, as few Malaysians know of him beyond his iconic status, songs and movies.

Props “carbon-copied” from Ramlee films, footage of his films, his movie posters and “newspaper reports”, accurate retro-fashion, stage technology which changes scenes by elevation, curtains emerging from all sides and credits in black-and-white, added to the show’s appeal.

The story begins and ends in 1973, with Ramlee’s last days at the Jalan Dedap bungalow in Kuala Lumpur that is now a memorial museum. Pudgy and tired, he busily composes his last hit song Air Mata Di Kuala Lumpur as a thunderstorm roars outside.

Ramlee (played by Sean Ghazi) retires to his favourite sofa and is joined by his third wife and soul mate Saloma (Liza Hanim), who assures him that the country will never forget him once he is gone.

Ramlee’s sadness slowly turns into a smile, as he reminisces on his journey to stardom beginning in Penang 36 years earlier.

Young Ramlee, played with zest by up-and-coming theatrical talent Mikhail Merican, 12, often plays truant from school, sings and dances to cendol customers and brings George Town’s streets alive.

The Penangites have high hopes for the boy to become a star, but Ramlee is soon distracted by his second dream, to win the love of rich girl Azizah, played convincingly by RTM Young Star 2005 winner Nurazliana (Lynn) Rusli.

Azizah and Ramlee are drawn to each other, but her mother (Soefira Jaafar) forbids her from going out with him.

Later, in his 20s, Ramlee wins a talent contest in Bukit Mertajam singing his first hit Azizah, composed with his childhood sweetheart, now portrayed by pop queen Datuk Siti Nurhaliza, in mind.

Film director B.S. Rajhans (choreographer Joseph Gonzales) who works with the Shaw brothers, Run Run (Colin Kirton) and Runme (Douglas Lim), and their company Malay Film Productions in Singapore, invite Ramlee to pursue an acting and singing career in Singapore.

Ramlee is heavy-hearted as this means leaving Azizah, but in Siti’s defining moment of her theatrical debut, she performs the moving Mulanya Cinta and encourages him to reach for the stars.

Joined by his best pal Sukardi (Chedd Yusoff of So You Think You Can Dance?), Ramlee boards a Singapore-bound train, and ends up at the Jalan Ampas studio, where he meets his future father-in-law, actor Daeng Harris (Wan Kenari Ibrahim).

Ramlee later marries Harris’ actress daughter Junaidah, played by jazz singer Raja Atilia Raja Haron, in a scene reminiscent of his comedies. The marriage is shortlived, as Ramlee is too busy chasing fame, and he soon ends up with the elegant Norizan Mohd Noor, the ex-wife of Sultan Yussuf Shah of Perak.

Sadly, Ramlee’s new added responsibilities as a director and composer keeps him away from the tempestuous and possessive Norizan who is convincingly played (right down to her facial expressions) by Saloma’s real-life niece and award-winning actress Melissa Saila. The couple often quarrel, and yet another marriage ends.

Ramlee eventually gets smitten by singer Salmah Ismail or Saloma, a fellow divorcee who was his secret admirer. They become duet partners, as she proves a gifted interpreter of his works.

Their professional relationship quickly becomes romantic for “Remy” admits to “Sally” that he cannot spend a day without her in the romantic Taman Tasik Titiwangsa.

Meanwhile, the Shaws face problems of their own as political instability rocks Singapore and the island chooses to leave Malaysia. Studio staff are angry with the Shaws’ act of retrenching and “underpaying” them.

Throughout the musical, Ramlee and his wives are confronted by four paparazzi members played by GangStarz pop group Infinatez. First-timers in theatre, they were cut out for the job.

However, the main supporting stars were Izlyn Ramli, Maya Tan Abdullah and Ida Mariana, who opened every scene as colourful, singing narrators.

While experienced Melissa proved the most applauded of Ramlee’s wives, Atilia and Liza also deserved kudos for mastering their respective characters, right down to their fashion and accents.

And all three are great singers who hold their own against Siti, who was not bad at all as a first-time actress.

Sean is living proof that hard work pays. While he hardly resembles Ramlee, the former Broadway actor and award-winning singer made extra effort to adopt the legend’s mannerisms, speech and style.

He was best as a distraught Ramlee freshly divorced from Norizan and a cheeky Ramlee wooing Saloma in between rehearsals.

Tiara picked the right man for the director’s job, her ex-Puteri Gunung Ledang co-star Adlin Aman Ramlie who is the son of Ramlee’s fellow actor A.R. Tompel.

Adlin co-directed the play with Zahim Albakri, and also wrote its 20 songs such as Mulanya Cinta and Lihatlah Dia. Ramlee’s evergreen hits such as Di Mana Kan Kau Cari Ganti, Azizah and Istana Cinta were also performed by Sean and Liza.

As Ramlee is also loved in Singapore and Indonesia, renowned Singaporean composer Dick Lee was roped in as composer and Indonesian maestro Erwin Gutawa as music director.

In a year of biographical musicals, Ramlee’s story stands out as first among equals.