December used to be a sleepy period for the arts, what with many Singaporeans going overseas for the holidays, but not any longer.
With the likes of local companies such as Wild Rice and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) putting on annual Christmas shows, and impresarios bringing in foreign productions at the year's end, arts lovers can now ring in the holiday cheer with a show or three fairly easily.
Wild Rice staged its first pantomime, Cinderel-LAH!, at the end of 2003. Artistic director Ivan Heng says at the time, the December period was a "dead slot" and there were few shows on.
He adds: "The idea was to create a local musical that audiences could enjoy with their family and loved ones, to celebrate the holidays and ring in the new year."
The experiment has worked for the past 11 years.
Monkey Goes West is this year's pantomime, a cheeky local take on the Chinese epic fantasy tale, Journey To The West.
Written by Wild Rice's resident playwright Alfian Sa'at and directed by Sebastian Tan of Broadway Beng fame, it includes characters such as Princess Iron Fan (Chua Enlai), Sun Wukong or the Monkey God (Sugie Phua) and Sandy the river ogre (Siti Khalijah Zainal). The two-hour production is running at Victoria Theatre.
Also banking on the celebratory December mood is Selena Tan. The founder of Dream Academy is bringing back the chirpy cabaret trio of which she is a part, Dim Sum Dollies, to the stage next month with the show The History Of Singapore Part 2.
Tan feels people head to the theatre at the end of the year to give themselves a little treat. "Something has been accomplished. We want to pat ourselves on the back because we've made it through the year," she says.
Dream Academy has been staging its annual Christmas revue, Crazy Christmas, since 1998. This year, it breaks with tradition a little by choosing to stage Dim Sum Dollies during the December slot. The Dollies have appeared in past editions of Crazy Christmas.
One avid theatregoer who is a big fan of these year-end productions is civil servant Jeanne Tan, who has been catching Crazy Christmas every year with her friends. She will catch the Dim Sum Dollies next month.
"Towards the year-end, people get into the festive mood and want to catch up with family and friends. Catching up over a production - it's intellectual and there's some 'soul' too," says the 36-year-old.
Judging by the ticket sales, she is not the only arts aficionado willing to dish out money for these December productions, which can cost between $20 and $230 a person.
The Crazy Christmas series attracted 12,000 people last year. This year's Dollies show has sold about 10,000 tickets so far, or about one-third of the house.
Wild Rice's annual pantomime is watched by about 15,000 to 20,000 people each year. Monkey Goes West has sold about 10,000 tickets so far, or about 60 per cent of its available tickets.
And all four days of the SSO Christmas Concerts this year, held at the almost 700-seater Victoria Concert Hall, are sold out.
The orchestra's general manager Anthony Brice says: "We always work hard to schedule concerts... during holiday periods as we know this is when audience members particularly want to come to see the orchestra."
While SSO's sold-out series features Christmas-themed pieces such as Ave Maria and White Christmas, not all year-end productions are about the holiday specifically.
What they do share is a cheery tone to set one in the mood for merry-making.
The Singapore Dance Theatre will cap its 2014 season with Don Quixote, a classical ballet whose titular character goes off in pursuit of romance and chivalry.
The company's artistic director, Janek Schergen, says the ballet has a "very lighthearted and happy tone".
He adds: "The finale of every year would be a significant big-name ballet that is a landmark in our repertoire and we usually perform ballets that are uplifting in tone at the end of the year."
In the end, each arts group's finale for the year is about letting audiences have "a fun, fabulous time with the whole family", as Monkey Goes West's director Sebastian Tan puts it.
"With the show, I hope they can take a piece of local magic - a piece of Singaporean magic - home with them."
Classical ballet gets fired up with flamenco
The Singapore Dance Theatre is going flamenco for its first new full-length ballet in eight years, Don Quixote, which opens at the Esplanade Theatre next week.
The ballet, which was originally choreographed by French dancer and choregrapher Marius Petipa, is based on a story by Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes. It tells of the titular ageing knight who meets two young lovers,
Kitri and Basilio, who are on a quest to marry.
For this production Cynthia Harvey is choreographing, she is taking the ballet back to its Spanish roots.
The ex-American Ballet Theatre principal dancer, 57, says: "The truth is, Petipa travelled to Spain and he fell in love with somebody there. He ended up learning a lot of Spanish dances, which he incorporated into The Nutcracker as well as Don Q."
In order to inject Spanish flavour into the choreography, she adopted some elements from flamenco.
"I've taken some arm movements specifically and a lot of the stylistic movements, such as the twisting of the upper body. There are very strong backs and for the men, there's a lot of that exaggerated posturing."
This vibrant blend of classicism and fiery flamenco is not easy to execute, according to the company's dancers.
Senior artist Rosa Park, who will be dancing the role of Kitri, says: "I love to watch Spanish dances such as flamenco, but I never thought I'd have the chance to dance it. Watching is much easier. It's not just moving a hand - you have to have the feeling inside."
Before Don Quixote, the last addition to Singapore Dance Theatre's full-length repertoire was Swan Lake in 2007.
Its artistic director Janek Schergen says: "There's the practical reason, which is that we've used up all the things that we have and we don't want to keep bringing back the same things.
"But you also want to keep the dancers developing and to do Don Q is a big plus for them, to experience something that's so different from any other classical ballet."
The costumes for the latest show are also Spanish-inspired. Harvey says they tried to keep it as traditional as possible, with "a lot of lace, embroidery and bright colours".
While the original ballet has a runtime of almost four hours, she has trimmed it down to a more nimble two hours and 15 minutes.
She has also streamlined the original 69 musical tracks to just 42 to keep the ballet moving at a steady clip.
"A lot of it is incidental and it doesn't belong to the story. To me, as long as the story is being told within the dancing and the mime, it's worth having.
"But if it's just a dance for a dance's sake, then it's not worth having," says Harvey, who stepped into Kitri's pointe shoes in the 1980s under the coaching of iconic Russian choreographers such as Mikhail Baryshnikov and Vladimir Vasiliev.
She brings her Kitri experience to bear on the production, which first came into her repertoire 36 years ago at the American Ballet Theatre, where she danced as a Flower Girl.
"Baryshnikov's production often kept things light, almost vaudevillian, whereas Vasiliev's version was more Hollywood romance and more cinematic," she says.
"I hope that my version will be classic and romantic, not like a romcom, but at a higher class level."
Where: Esplanade Theatre
When: Dec 4 to 7, 8pm (Thursday and Friday), 1 and 8pm (Saturday), 1 and 7pm (Sunday)
Admission: $30, $50 and $70 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)
History lesson, Dim Sum Dollies-style
It may not be Aug 9, but to Selena Tan, National Day is nearing.
An "alternative National Day" that is, complete with crazy costumes, feathers and titillating laughs.
Her new show, Dim Sum Dollies - The History Of Singapore Part 2, which opens next month, will tackle episodes in the country's history post- independence. The first show, focusing on events before 1965, was staged in 2007. "It's so alternative it's in December," says the Dream Academy founder. "With the whole SG50 fervour, I wanted to put this out early so we can celebrate with laughter."
She is part of the comedy cabaret trio, Dim Sum Dollies, with Pam Oei and Denise Tan, who are known for their satirical take on current issues and out-there personas and song-and-dance numbers. Denise Tan replaced the late Emma Yong, who died of stomach cancer in 2012.
Selena Tan has been working hard on the script and admits that it was difficult to select "the most important bits of history". She says: "We've lived through quite a lot in those 50 years. In the end, we chose the iconic moments that the bulk of the audience would have seen or read about."
These include the 1970s football fever that gripped the nation, leading to the advent of the Kallang Roar, and the decade's Two Is Enough advertisements, featuring two little girls as part of the Government's campaign to encourage Singapore couples to stop at two children.
But she stresses that the Dollies are not trying to play history teachers. "It is history according to Dim Sum Dollies. Facts are not guaranteed, but laughs are always confirmed," she quips.
And she has not shied away from potentially sensitive episodes, with sketches such as "The Mas Selamat Mess-up" and "The ISA Wave Of Detentions", referencing the escape of former Jemaah Islamiah leader Mas Selamat Kastari from detention in 2008 and the 1987 Marxist conspiracy arrests.
She talks about a sketch in the earlier Part 1 show where they touched on World War II by portraying cowardly Japanese kamikaze pilots who rely on parachutes. "We are tongue-in-cheek, without making the situation too light. We give it enough gravitas and add a sort of Dim Sum Dolly twist."
Music-wise, the show will feature 17 songs from genres ranging from 1960s a-go-go to 1980s flashdance. They will be joined by a bevy of male dancers known as the Loh Mai Guys - a pun on the Cantonese dim sum treat loh mai kai.
The costumes, too, promise not to disappoint. There are about 25 costumes for each Dolly in the two-hour show. Some of these are mascots such as Singa the Courtesy Lion and Teamy The Productivity Bee, recognisable to many Singaporeans for being the faces of government campaigns in the 1980s.
"I get to play a soursop, be a flower and this makcik who does kebayarobics during the 2011 General Election period, and I get to do dikir barat," says Tan.
But ask her what her favourite sketch is and she answers confidently: "I really like the one where I play the soursop."
DIM SUM DOLLIES - THE HISTORY OF SINGAPORE PART 2
Where: Esplanade Theatre
When: Dec 11 to 23, 8pm (Tuesday to Sunday), 3pm (Saturday and Sunday), no shows on Monday except Dec 22, 8pm
Admission: $48 to $138 (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)
Year-end shows to catch
Monkey Goes West
What: It is Journey To The West done Singapore-style, where Monkey God heads to Jurong West and meets colourful characters along the way. Wild Rice's annual pantomime features wushu dance choreography and musical numbers that its director, Sebastian Tan, describes as "Chinese pop rock funk fusion".
Where: Victoria Theatre
When: Till Dec 13, 7.30pm (Tuesday to Friday), 2.30 and 7.30pm (Thursday and Saturday), 2.30pm (Sunday)
Admission: $50 to $80 from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)
What: Junior Claus has to save Christmas after Santa falls into a deep sleep in this cheery musical presented by the Singapore Repertory Theatre's The Little Company. Suitable for kids aged five and above.
Where: DBS Arts Centre, 20 Merbau Road
When: Till Dec 14, 10am (Monday to Friday), 11am and 2.30pm (Saturday and Sunday)
Admission: Weekday tickets at $32 and $35 each and $119 for family package of four, weekend tickets at $42 and $45 each and $153 for family package of four from Sistic Info: www.srt.com.sg
What: Set on a Grecian island, this jukebox musical featuring the hits of Swedish supergroup Abba follows a daughter's search for her father ahead of her wedding day.
Where: Mastercard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands
When: Till Dec 14, 8pm (Tuesday to Friday), 2 and 8pm (Saturday), 1 and 6pm (Sunday)
Admission: $95 to $230 from Sistic Info: entertainment.marinabaysands.com
Peter Pan, The Never Ending Story
What: This musical, based on the J.M. Barrie classic of the boy who never wants to grow old, is sure to fire up the imagination. Features pop hits from artists such as Robbie Williams and Westlife.
Where: Resorts World Theatre, Resorts World Sentosa
When: Thursday to Jan 20 next year, 8pm (Monday to Sunday), 3pm matinees on Saturday and Sunday. No shows on Wednesday
Admission: $58 to $168 from Sistic Info: www.rwsentosa.com/peterpan
All Things Bright & Beautiful - A Choral Concert
What: The Singapore Lyric Opera presents a spirited repertoire of songs that range from Jingle Bell Swing to Shinjuru (Believing) by Ko Matsushita.
Where: Esplanade Concert Hall
When:Dec 13, 7.30pm
Admission: $25 to $35 from Sistic Info: www.singaporeopera.com.sg
My Christmas Wish - The Amazing ToyBox Christmas Concert 2014
What: Get your tots into the festive mood with the help of Mark and Reuben, who will sing, dance and tell stories along with costumed characters such as Sherriff Bob and Abby Ant. For children aged one to seven.
Where: Ulu Pandan CC Theatrette
When: Saturday, 4pm, and Sunday, 10am, 2 and 5pm
Admission: $30, $27.50 for groups of six or more (go to theamazingtoybox.peatix.com/)
This article was first published on November 25, 2014. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.