Shanghai Cabaret: Theater for a cause

Anith Adilah Othman / Khmer Times No Comments Share:
Phnom Penh Players is set to wow audience with a unique adaptation of 1969’s Cabaret. Chor Sokunthea

Theater group Phnom Penh Players is using their arts to help out a cause closely related to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning and intersex (LGBTQI) group in Cambodia.

This week, Shanghai Cabaret, a musical which drew inspirations from 1969’s Cabaret and Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin is set to play for four nights at the Chinese House. Priced at $10 per admission, all proceeds will go to Chhouk Sar Clinic which provides free HIV testing and treatment to high-risk groups in the Kingdom.

Anith Adilah Othman sits with Chas Hamilton, the musical’s artistic director, who has previously brought renditions of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire and William Shakespeare’s Macbeth to life in Cambodia. This, however, is his first foray into musical adaptation, and we are all excited.

One of the nail-biting scenes in Hamilton’s Shanghai Cabaret. Chor Sokunthea

KT: What is Shanghai Cabaret?

Chas Hamilton: It is a show based on the musical Cabaret but reimagined in the decadent city of Shanghai in 1941. It is an end of an era love story, introducing new characters and stories and music from the period.

KT: I understand that every year the Phnom Penh Players would donate all proceeds to local charities. So, how did Chhouk Sar Clinic get chosen this year?

Mr Hamilton: Mainly because the play is dealing with sexuality and sex as the central themes, therefore it seems like the perfect fit. Considering the context of the play, we are proud to support a charity that offers free HIV testing and treatments, especially for entertainment workers and men who have sex with men. Aside from that, some of our players are also a part of the LGBTQI community. It just seems perfect.

KT: How long did it take you to write Shanghai Cabaret?

Mr Hamilton: It is based on previous shows already so I would say I only did around 5 percent of the original writings. But I had to imagine these characters and stories in my head, while still maintaining historical accuracies. I did a lot of research into Shanghai at the time, with the whole Pearl Harbour incident and more. It took me between 10 months to one year to write the script alone.

KT: Wow. So what do you wish for the audience to take away from the show?

Mr Hamilton: I want them to take away a piece of magic…magic that is a great musical. Perhaps even an emotional connection, because I think they can relate to some of the numbers and scenes. I want them to take away a positive story that they can share. I also want to prove that it is possible to bring Western performance arts to Cambodia.

KT: You mentioned that the audience would be mostly expats. What do you think is stopping Cambodians from coming to such shows?

Mr Hamilton: Actually, we are seeing more and more Cambodians coming to productions. It is slowly building…the traction, which is great. It could be because they do not know what to expect. The arts in Cambodia is different, unlike theaters in the West. It is a whole different cultural experience. Also, the fact that the ticket is $10, which to most Cambodians is a lot of money. Let us be honest about that.

KT: Do you think the younger audience can relate to the story?

Mr Hamilton: The singing and dancing make it more digestible. The music aspect adds so much to the whole experience.

Chas Hamilton, artistic director of Shanghai Cabaret. Chor Sokunthea

KT: What was your writing process like?

Mr Hamilton: I start at the end and work backwards. First, I tried to find the story arch and the characters. For this musical, the setting was the first thing. Back then in Shanghai, the cabaret was flourishing so I figured there must be stories there, but what kind? Apart from that I quite enjoyed writing humorous scenes. And there are also a lot of interesting little quips in there, from Shakespeare and many others. Some people will get it, some won’t.

KT: I assume you read a lot, so who is your favourite playwright?

Mr Hamilton: I love the classics, so Shakespeare. I love both his comedies and tragedies. I studied Shakespeare in drama school, where I was trained as an actor.

KT: What was the most challenging part of directing Shanghai Cabaret?

Mr Hamilton: The singing and dancing. To be honest, I was terrified because I only managed to get a choreographer and a musical director about six weeks ago. I was truly worried about not personally having the skills to perform and teach the choreography.

Don’t forget to catch the show, happening from tonight until March 16 at Chinese House. Tickets are on sale for $10 at Chinese House, Rambutan Resort in Phnom Penh and at both Lot 369 Cafe & Bar TTP and BKK branches.

For more information, contact Phnom Penh Players spokesperson Arttu Karppanen via [email protected] or at +855 0934 2089.


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