Star-Bulletin Features

Sherry Chock Wong is memorable as the comic "dragon lady" Chah Li in "Song of Singapore."

Clumsy set weakens cast’s
first-rate ‘Song’

Review by John Berger

The cast is talented, but the staging is at times problematic in Manoa Valley Theatre's reprise of "Song of Singapore." The show was a hit when MVT presented it in 1995, and the run this time has already been extended. Be warned, however, that relatively few seats provide a full view of the action.

As in 1995, the entire theater has been made over as Freddy S. Lyme's seedy Song of Singapore nightclub. Most of the action takes place on the bandstand and as long as it stays there most folks have a reasonably good view. Unfortunately, several key bits happen at floor level. Sit on the right side of the "club" and you'll miss the action at the bar at the room's extreme left. Those in the back third of the room will miss the bar action and a dance-floor confrontation.

These problems could have been avoided if the "club's" rear tables were placed on low risers as is done in many real nightclubs. As it is, sight lines are a problem, and most of the choreography is directed straight ahead and thus to a relatively small portion of the audience.

Here's the secret: The doors open 30 minutes before the publicized show time. Get there early, and be prepared to fight for a table just to the left of center and on the audience side of the dance floor.

Other than that, "Song of Singapore," a musical written and scored by a committee, is directed by Karen Bumatai as a comedy that works very very hard to remind the audience as frequently as possible just how Really Really Funny it is. All that's missing is a canned laugh track and a drummer hitting rim shots (ba-DUMP!) after each bit.

The story takes place in Singapore in December 1941, and runs like a spoof of the exotic mystery movies of the '30s and early '40s.

The characters are instantly familiar. There's hard-boiled American expatriate Spike Spauldeen (David "Kawika" Leonard Vega), Dutch ne'er-do-well Hans van der Last (Charles Degala), the vaguely disreputable Freddy S. Lyme (Darren Server), and the mysterious Rose of Rangoon (Katie Leiva), a seductive torch singer with amnesia.

Sexy Chah Li (Sherry Chock Wong) and corrupt Police Inspector Marvin Kurland (Greg Howell) are the other major characters.

Will Freddy, Hans and Spike find the stolen jewels of Jun Ken Po before Inspector Kurland does? Will Rose remember her true identity? Will the foursome find a way to get out of Singapore ahead of the Japanese army?

'Song of Singapore'

Where: Manoa Valley Theatre, 2833 E. Manoa Road
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 4 p.m. Sundays through March 31
Tickets: $30 to March 24; $35 general, $15 for 25 and under March 27 to 31; $5 discount available to seniors and military
Call: 988-6131
Notes: A dinner by Donato's will be offered on the MVT lanai starting 90 minutes before curtain, Wednesdays through Saturdays

Credit director Bumatai with assembling a cast that is better than the 1995 group. The biggest upgrade is Leiva's consistently delightful portrayal of the mysterious Rose. Yvonne Filius seemed quite good in 1995, but Leiva is better. She plays "sexy" without seeming as hard and calculating as Filius was, bringing out the comic nuances of the role. Leiva's triple-threat talent as a singing, dancing actor makes "You Gotta Do What You Gotta Do" a musical highlight.

Howell proves every bit as resourceful as Lance Rae was in 1995 in playing the comically villainous Inspector Kurland while slipping in and out of the secondary roles. Howell has been one of Honolulu's most underrated comic actors; this show should change that.

Server imbues Lyme with a slippery, slightly shady aura that adds depth to that character. Degala displays his versatility as a strong singer and comic actor as van der Last.

Wong, last seen starring as Hana-ogi in Army Community Theatre's fall production of "Sayonara," is triumphant in the more demanding role of Chah Li. She wears the stereotypical "dragon lady" character like a second skin, then steps out of comic mode to make her rendition of "Foolish Geese" the show's most memorable number.

Athena Espania (costume design) enhances Wong's performance with gorgeous cheong-sams and amplifies Leiva's inherent stage appeal with a red-hot sequined creation.

Musical director Melina Lillios' band is another asset. Pianist Trixie Lockhart (Lillios), saxophonist Zoot DeFumee (Keith Griffith), trumpeter T-Bone Bonerez (Mark Minasian) guitarist Chucky "Chop Chop" Chang (Fred Oshiro), bassist Taqsim D'Arco (Lou Benanto) and drummer Condaleeza Kahanamoku (Donna Oyama, who played the 1995 show as "Tondaleo Rubinowitz") give the singers strong support throughout.

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