Last night my wife and I went with a friend to see the premiere show at the new Ratchadalai Theatre in the Esplanade shopping center. The show was ฟ้าจรดทราย, a Thai-language musical based on the (rather hefty) novel of the same name by โสภาค สุวรรณ.
Almost two months ago, we had decided to read the novel as a couple. We didn't get very far because, frankly, I didn't think it was very good, which killed my motivation. When we read Thai books together, I usually do all the reading, out loud, so I can practice my language skills. In the 50 pages or so we managed to get through, I wasn't impressed. But as it turns out, the first 50 pages of the book barely figures into the condensed plot of the 3-hour musical. And while I still think the story is weak and unoriginal, I enjoyed the play.
The Ratchadalai Theatre (รัชดาลัยเธียเตอร์) is being touted as Thailand's first "Broadway" class theater, which is a definite overstatement. We sat center toward the front of the balcony, and while I didn't get a clear view of the lower level, I'd estimate the seating capacity at upwards of 1000, which is quite a lot considering it's jammed into a shopping mall. The theater is not very wide, making it feel rather small and claustrophobic. The super-steep balcony adds to that effect. I've never seen a Broadway play, but from what I have seen of playhouses and theaters in the U.S., I'd rank the design higher than the decoration. The seats alternate in three garish shades of muppet-fur upholstery--purple, pink, and red. The carpet is a tasteful pattern of black and yellow, and the walls are dark wood, so the seats just plain clash. Very movie theater--not upscale at all.
*Spoiler alert* I'm going to recap the plot, as I figure many readers will not get a chance to see it (it's on hiatus after tonight, and closes after another run of shows in July). Consider yourself warned.
The story of ฟ้าจรดทราย is fairly basic. Michelle (มิเชล) is an orphaned ลูกครึ่ง of mixed French and Asian stock. Neither the book nor the play specify just what Asian country, but Michelle's mixed parentage causes her to be rejected by her father's wealthy French aristocratic family after her parents are killed. The book opens with Michelle graduating from high school and preparing to bid farewell to the French convent in which she was raised; the play opens a bit later on, with Michelle arriving in the town of Hilfarah, in the unnamed middle-eastern homeland of her best friend from school, Kashfiya (แคชฟียา). Kashfiya is an idealistic, westernized Muslim lass with grand plans to come open a girls' school in her country that will help cure it of its patriarchal restrictions on women. Michelle is hired to be a teacher at the planned school.
In the time frame of the play, the monkey wrench is thrown into the works immediately--a man comes between the best friends. Said man is Kashfiya's French boyfriend, Robert, a hormone-driven oaf with a penchant for public displays of affection and who has clearly never heard the phrase "no means no." Since her parents will never approve, she tells them that Robert is actually Michelle's boyfriend, and without much effort, Robert himself becomes convinced of this. Despite the fact that Michelle doesn't share his affection, when Kashfiya intercepts a love missive from Robert to her best friend, she flies into a musical rage and vows to take revenge. Kashfiya's parents have betrothed her to become a concubine of Hiflarah's rajah, King Ahmed, but she tricks Michelle into wearing the outfit which lets the royal guards know which woman to come carry away on their shoulders to join the ranks of the King's harem. This contrived bit of mistaken identity works in a musical of this sort, but I seriously wonder how it could have possibly worked in the novel, since the way it's portrayed on the stage, Michelle doesn't seem at all surprised or opposed to being carried off by strange men. Go figure.
Once in the palace, the mistake is quickly uncovered, but the rajah decides to keep Michelle anyway (he probably lost the receipt). She is distraught, and butts heads with the rajah's personal doctor, Sharif, an uber-loyal servant whose father's life was once saved by Ahmed. He sets her straight on her backwards and disrespectful Western ways, and she calls him uncivilized. Anyone who has read, say, Much Ado About Nothing, or Pride and Prejudice, can see from a mile away that Sharif and Michelle are destined to be together. After their talk, she is unwillingly brought to the rajah for her official night of harem initiation. But as Ahmed is disrobing her, the scheming Oman (who I think is the younger brother of the Ahmed--not sure on that detail) conveniently attacks the palace, sort of stab-kicking Ahmed behind a curtain, "killing" him. Sharif comes to Michelle's rescue, and they escape into the desert together.
While they travel in the desert, Michelle disguises herself as Sharif's deaf and dumb servant boy, and they continue to fight/flirt. One highlight of the play--judging by the audience's reaction--is when our heroes meet the obligatory comic relief in the form of a desert caravan, whose leader tries to matchmake for his amusingly overweight daughter, who does a belly dance and tries her best to live up to her father's hype. But before long, the two fugitives bond in the desert and share a night of implied passion.
As the story progresses, we are given twist after unsurprising twist. There's the close call, where Oman's assassins nearly unmask Michelle, but fall for the old "she's got leprosy" routine; eventually Sharif and Michelle are captured by another band of apparent bandits, who turn out to be Ahmed's personal bodyguards, because--shock--Ahmed didn't really die! We are soon given the obligatory final act falling-out, in which Sharif resumes his loyalty to Ahmed and insists Michelle must continue on as his master's concubine. But Ahmed figures things out and eventually gives them his blessing. Only one more obstacle: someone must volunteer to sneak back into the palace at Hilfarah to assassinate Oman, and unbeknownst to Michelle, Sharif is the man for the job. Ahmed breaks the news to her, but Michelle courageously tells her beloved to do his duty. In the final climactic sword fight, Oman is killed but Sharif is also "killed" by Oman's guards. And once again, no one who has read a book or seen a movie before is actually surprised that Sharif isn't really dead.
Like I said, the plot is very run-of-the-mill and predictable. There's also some pretty heavy-handed lessons to be learned. At one point, Sharif tells Michelle that it is the belief of the people of Hilfarah that a wish made on a shooting star will come true. Michelle's wish is that all nations and races will be able to get along and not judge one another based on their skin--I literally turned to my wife and made a gagging motion at this point. Very saccharine. There are also the only-slightly-more-subtle lessons that (1) Western ways are not our ways, exemplified by "kissing in public is bad"--the way the young Frenchman Robert is portrayed, you're sure he's buying roofies in bulk; and (2) loyalty to king and country comes above everything else. There's a nationalistic feel to the story, despite the fact that none of the characters are Thai. It's escapist allegory, which doesn't surprise me in the current climate, but it makes me wonder how the rest of the novel reads. Not quite enough to put it back on my reading list yet, though.
The title ฟ้าจรดทราย means "sky meets sand," which in part is a reference to the desert, where sand reaches out as far as the eye can see, all the way to the horizon. The other significance of this title is that in one song in the play, Sharif compares himself to sand and Michelle to the sky--although they appear to meet, no matter how far you travel towards the horizon, they never actually do--it's just an illusion.
For me, ฟ้าจรดทราย is redeemed somewhat by its production values. Some of the effects done with the scenery are quite good. That said, I don't understand why, if the final climactic battle scene between Sharif and Oman is a sword fight (followed by another sword battle between Oman's men and Ahmed's men), they would choose to use wooden swords, and not at least give us some sound effects. I realize it's a highly stylized musical play, so realism is neither possible nor expected, but it took me out of the story every time swords clashed with a "pok pok" sound like the ก๋วยเตี๋ยว carts that sell soi-to-soi. The singing is decent, but it's probably also the part that puts the clearest gap between this play and any professionally produced musical in the United States. It's just not world class. The harmonies sound good, but most of the solo performances sound, at best, university theater caliber. Any time someone tried to hit a high note, I cringed, and would pay money to hear Simon Cowell's commentary on those moments. One of the best singers is Kashfiya, who has a regretfully small part, played by รฐา โพธิ์งาม (also a singer in her "day job," known as ญาญ่า หญิง).
This review probably makes it sound otherwise, but overall, I did enjoy the play. But I enjoyed it probably in the same way I'd enjoy chick flicks if Scorsese and Coppola weren't an option. Enjoyable, but nothing to write home about, ฟ้าจรดทราย is nonetheless a step forward in opening up the cultural options in Bangkok, particularly to the natives. I'm not versed in the history of stage theater in Thailand, but I'm quite certain this is the most expensive play ever produced here. The amount of effort and expense that went into the scoring, the choreographing, the production--everything--is clearly immense. Let's hope that the success of this play (its run was recently extended significantly) will result in many new and interesting options for theater-going denizens of Bangkok in the future.
But if there's one clear sign that stage theater has finally "arrived" in Thailand, it's this: Andrew Lloyd Webber's it-just-won't-die musical Cats is scheduled at the Ratchadalai. I'd prefer that it were Phantom, but I have to admit that I'll be in line come November. I'm grateful to have anything to watch that isn't the prime-time soap operas.