A juicy secret
We spill the beans on a deliciously campy homegrown musical.
There’s something so charming about Malaysia in the 1960s – perhaps it was the form-fitting kebayas and flirty minidresses, or the bouffant hairdos (for both women and men). Or perhaps it was that irresistible feeling of fun and optimism as the country discovered its identity after emerging from British rule.
It is right smack in this unique, east-meetsWest era that Datin seri Tiara Jacquelina’s latest offering, The Secret Life Of Nora, is set, and the musical certainly revels in its campy, larger-than-life potential. Produced by Tiara’s enfiniti Vision Media and starring the accomplished actress as the titular Nora, the show manages to bring the 60s to vivid life while telling a story that is pure, fluffy enjoyment.
Penned by raymond Miranda and helmed by West end director stephen Dexter, the musical tells the tale of Nora, a prima donna nightclub singer who dreams of making it big on the silver screen. When she is cast as a female spy in a movie by British director roger Foss (ryan silverman) and local producer Farouk (Tony eusoff), Nora thinks she’s about to make her big break.
What she doesn’t know is that Farouk is in fact a member of a secret spy organisation, and that roger is an elite spy trainer. They are using the movie as a front to train Nora and eventually recruit her as a spy. her mission? To infiltrate the New World Cabaret owned by the mysterious J heart (Aznil Nawawi), where suspicious activities involving women have been sighted.
It’s all very James Bond-meets-Moulin rouge-meets-emma Peel, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. The catch with attempting a production like this, though, is that, with all these familiar elements, the show either has to pull it off brilliantly, or fall flat in its attempt. Luckily, Nora mostly manages to pull it off. The first act is a total joyride to the past, thanks to the excellent production values and sparkling chemistry between the cast. The combination of gorgeous sets and costumes, energetic dancing and catchy music provide a great platform for the story to unfold.
Unfortunately, the second act drops the ball. It lacks the spirit and energy of the first half, and rushes through the story towards a climax that seems corny and convoluted. I preferred the charmingly retro vibe of the first act to the supposedly thrilling feel of the second, which seems rather forced.
For Tiara, who has been most visible in recent years as the eponymous princess in Puteri Gunung Ledang: The Musical (PGL), the role of the sassy Nora is a total departure. here, she gets to not just don glamorous costumes, but also kick a few baddies’ butts along the way.
Interesting as she may be, however, it is the supporting characters that truly make Nora come alive. Of these, West end performer silverman makes a great debut on the Malaysian stage. extremely likeable as Nora’s love interest roger, he nails the balance between being suave and silly. he is also an impressive vocalist, excelling both in lighthearted numbers like Women Make Good Spies and more emotional ones such as Not Too Late To Start.
Another standout performance is Adibah Noor as Khatijah, Nora’s manager and best friend; her wonderful stage presence and comic timing lights up every scene she is in. Aaron Khaled, as J heart’s henchman sharif, is also memorable for his ability to blend comedy and menace, and I loved his sleazy rendition of the tango-inspired Siapa Mahu Menjadi Bintang.
stephanie Van Driesen, on the other hand, puts in a very good turn as Nora’s assistant Betty, but her character is rather shortchanged in the second half. her solo Kau Yang Menulis is one of the best in the show, and I would have liked to see more of her. The character of J heart, too, is rather underdeveloped, and the backstory provided for him is unconvincing. While Aznil is obviously having a ball with this flamboyant, campy villain, a little more depth to the role would have been more effective.
But even the show’s weaker parts are saved by the sheer deliciousness of its candy-coloured visual spectacle. No expense or effort seems to have been spared when it comes to the production’s look, and it certainly shows.
set design by the UK-based Francis O’Connor is stunning, whether it’s the campy nightclub where Nora performs, the mountaintop where she and roger fall in love, or the utterly over-the-top villain’s lair. The way each set tells a story and the clever way they transform into the next scene, is impressive yet fits seamlessly into the production as a whole.
Providing even more eye candy is the costume design by Moe Kasim and stylo, which captures the look of the era while providing the glitz and glam of cabaret. I loved the attention to detail, down to how each ensemble member’s outfit in each scene has something new to look at.
Nora also boasts top-notch music and choreography, thanks to composer san Weng Onn and choreographer Pat Ibrahim. Drawing on everything from tango to jazz and ballads, san’s compositions are vibrant and catchy. Together with lyricist Alfian sa’at, san’s work on numbers such as Siapa Mahu Menjadi