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A charming tale Bird starts in "Aroka", the latest offering from Baab Bird Bird

Hit singer Bird (centre), who stars as Prince Aroka, and the two Buranas, Nat Myria (right) and Nicole.

Love being the ultimate cure-all might not be the most innovative theme for a play, but Grammy Entertainment still thinks it holds enough charm to keep an audience spellbound, especially with superstar Thongchai McIntyre, better known as Bird, in the lead.

That is why the Baab Bird Bird Production is staging the musical Aroka-a romantic fantasy.

It is a departure from the sell-out Baab Bird Bird concerts of the past where the superstar sang his hits accompanied by spectacular dance repertoires. Director Bussaba Daoruang said: "The performance has a basic plot that everyone can understand without interpretation. Theme of the story is that the greatest love is true and sincere. Spectators will experience every emotion, from laugh to tears. The presentation is a mix of beauty, balance and perfect harmony." It is the story of a mysterious land called Arokya where there is an Aroka, a plant that can heal all sickness. Aroka is also the name of the King's son, played by Bird. He was born with virtue, but later is dominated by Kumin, his wicked uncle. Kumin creates poison to lead people into a bad life.

Prince Aroka is then turned into a man with no heart or feeling. Burana is a beautiful young lady whose heart is full of love. Her father is also poisoned so she travels to Aroka to find the medicine to heal him. There, she meets Prince Aroka and turns the Prince into a sensitive person. Kumin realises the change in Aroka so he poisons Burana and she falls unconscious. The Prince finds out and fights Kumin. He brings peace back to his land, but still cannot help Burana unless one heart is healed by the other.

Two Grammy songstresses, Nicole Theriault and Nat Myria Benedetti take turns in playing Burana.

Bird said Ms Nicole and Ms Nat were chosen because of their lovely voices and feminine natures. However, they both play Burana in two quite different ways. Ms Nicole is a cute and cheerful version., while Ms Nat is more of a dreamer.

Heamakarn Sricharatchanya
Bangkok post Outlook March 15, 2000

When Thongchai McIntyre goes on stage, you can be sure you are going to get your fill of pure, unadulterated entertainment that appeals to the entire family, from youngsters, screaming teenagers, adoring adults, to senior citizens. But that's Thongchai, known to his fans as Bird, and his appeal surpasses all generation gaps, outliving any pop star that has shot to fame in the last two decades. He is ageless, and the comparisons to Peter Pan and Michael Jackson are beginning to become cliches. But then, Bird has mastered the technique of re-inventing himself with every new album or performance, whether it's Bird the love ballad crooner, luk thung superstar, jazz singer, Latin beat swinger, rapper, or in his Caribbean reggae mode. His talent and charisma are very marketable, and so is his sex appeal. It is not surprising that his latest venture, a "romantic fantasy musical" production titled Aroka Jomya kub Ya Jai (Aroka the Medicine Man and the Maiden), is running to full houses at the Thailand Cultural Centre. Tickets are not cheap; ranging from 500 baht for the top balcony to 2,000 baht for the front pit. That's more expensive than tickets to the Bolshoi Ballet.

But what it does indicate is that the musical fills a much-needed void in the Thai performance art industry. Pop concerts are regular happenings, and nothing special is needed by way of creativity in addition to a band that is the flavour of the month, and a mammoth sound system to blow out the ear-drums. Plays are produced to a lesser degree, and cater to a small niche of theatre-goers.

But Aroka is a full-scale musical, complete with professional cast, creative costumes, catchy songs, high-tech sets, back-up dancers and a live orchestra, plus a full range of paraphernalia in the form of merchandising-CDs, cassettes, T-shirts, and crisps in distinctive Aroka containers. The theme of the musical follows the Beauty and the Beast line; beautiful girl from foreign land tames the "monster" by introducing him to the alien concept of love.

To be more specific, the land of Arokya has been darkened by the forces of evil in the form of Cumin the Usurper, who reduces the people to robotic beings. Prince Aroka has been brainwashed by Cumin into devising new uses of herbal medicines to greater enhance his power.

The maiden, Burana, has to travel to Arokya in search of an antidote for a poison that all but killed her father. Her love for her father gives her the courage to face the "beast", get the antidote, touch his heart, and revive her father. Cumin, determined not to let Burana loosen his hold on Aroka, kills her with Aroka's own poison concoction. The lovesick Aroka discovers the truth behind Cumin's deviousness, and kills him. His true love for Burana brings back to life the dead Arokya Tree, the country's symbol of health and vitality, which in turn brings Burana back from the dead. It's as simple as that.

The professional and well-selected cast brings strength to the simple story line, from rock singer Michael Tang, who plays the usurper Cumin, to mime artist Paitoon Laisakul who plays Ganja, Cumin's knave. Stealing the show were comedians Kiatisak Udomnak as Gravan and Benjaphol Cheuyaroon as Kanphlu, the two personal assistants to Aroka. Their loyalty and devotion to Aroka is touching-touching both the heart and the funnybone. Television actress Pavanrat Nagasuriya as their sidekick, Mamiew, brought the audience to tears (of laughter) as she taught Burana how to turn on her female charm to get Aroka eating out of her hand. The three of them were clearly the most outstanding as stage performers, and though she's not a singer, Pavanrat's stage experience and understanding of voice projection gave her an equally strong singing voice.

Which is more than can be said for pop singer Nicole Theriault. Despite her box-office appeal, her angelic face and her sweet vocals, she was obviously at a loss on stage. Even the microphone at times was unable to make her audible to the audience. Her childlike naivete was endearing at most, but she was unable to bring any passion into her role, resulting in a stiff and stilted performance.

The role of Burana alternated between Nicole and pop singer Nat Myria Benedetti. Those who saw Nat in the role of Burana insist she came across as a strong and sympathetic leading character-after all, she is a veteran of the theatre. Hers was apparently a more mature character interpretation of Burana. In fact, having two versions of Burana adds an interesting perspective to the concert, and provides a good topic for debate and conversation.

Costumes were designed to fit the fantasy theme, and they were quite spectacular. Designer Ratanaphol Thammachat used textured fabric from the Mae Fah Luang Foundation to good effect. There were even a few hints of Broadway (The Lion King, Cats) and even Michael Jackson, if you look carefully enough. A lot of investment went into the sets, with the focus being the central "tower", which revolves to reveal Aroka's laboratory with its video-wall display of flowers and DNA structures, and even Aroka's own face at one point, though one wonders why.

Bird was in his element. He is undoubtedly the darling of the audience whatever mode he happens to be in-dastardly evil, or devastatingly romantic. In typical "Bird" fashion, he inserts a session where he interacts with the audience. Easy enough when you're performing in a concert, but while in character, Bird got round this by pretending he was in discussion with magic mirrors. The typical cheeky innuendoes of his dialogue with the audiences got them screaming their hearts out as would be expected.

Despite the light-hearted love theme, the musical does manage to poke fun at genetically modified plants; Burana's father is poisoned by chemicals sprayed onto their natural crops by Cumin's insurgents, while Gravan and Kanphlu experiment with cross strains of vegetables-turian (durian) crossed with makua tes (tomato) becomes the bizarre tures plant, another play on words.

On the whole, Aroka Chom Ya kab Ya Chai is a wholesome and entertaining performance which requires little by way of analytical thinking.

Bird retains his polished image as a professional all-round singer and entertainer, and that's a fact.