OlaBola The Musical A triumph for the local arts scene

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I was skeptical at first.

When word got out that OlaBola, a film about our national football team’s efforts to qualify for the 1980 Olympics, was going to be turned into a stage production, I raised an eyebrow.

My concern was simply this: How do you replicate a football game on stage? Surely, the notion of a group of men kicking a ball around in the middle of the opulent Istana Budaya seems jarring.

But the moment the lustrous-haired Harimau Malaya players stepped on stage and played its first game against North Korea, my doubts were allayed.

Combining street dance styles and actual football moves, the result is a choreography unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Executed by its talented cast with grace, fluidity and such artfulness, every football match was a sight to behold. Simply put, OlaBola The Musical found a language between dance and football. And boy, did it speak to us.

Still, it isn’t a football match without its roaring fans. To bring to life the atmosphere of a stadium erupting with cheers and excitement, three projector screens were positioned in a semi circle, enveloping the audience with animated football fans.

The cast also “interacted” with the projector screens, headbutting an animated ball for instance, which required incredible timing and precision.

The practical sets were no less impressive. Whether it was the coffee shop or the locker room, the set designs brought back all the charm of the 1980s. Team captain Chow Kwok Keong’s house looked so cosy I wanted to move in!

The sets and props weren’t just pretty, they were cleverly used. In a scene where the Harimau Malaya players were sent to a military camp, a couple of unassuming benches were innovatively (and efficiently) transformed into various obstacle courses.

OlaBola The Musical wasn’t just a feast for the eyes, but the ears as well.

Besides a smattering of sombre ballads and traditional Malay tunes, the show’s music leans heavily on hip-hop, which may sound like an odd choice at first. But after watching the show, it’s hard to imagine any other genre of music accompanying it.

Not only do the thumping beats and the rap verses tie beautifully with the football choreography, hip-hop brings out the ferocity of the sport and what Harimau Malaya was trying to achieve.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to realising OlaBola The Musical is finding its actors. Newcomer Brian Chan, who played lead Chow Kwok Keong, sang, rapped, danced, dribbled a football and managed to look dashing at the same time. And although we knew Luqman Hafidz (Ali) – who was an original cast from the film – could act, who knew he had a knack for singing and dancing as well?

While established names like Luqman, Stephen-Rahman Hughes, Douglas Lim, Altimet and Iedil Putra are attached to the project, it’s nice to see the cast comprising mostly of little-known talents, proving it doesn’t rely on star power but pure talent.

Standout fresh faces include Nasz Sally, who played a sassy, hip-swaying office manager Cik Kiah that stole our hearts and Melissa Ong’s pristine vocals as her character Mei Ling sang to convince her dejected brother Chow to return to the team.

Iedil had one of the hardest jobs of the night, portraying a character memorably played by Bront Palarae in the film – sports commentator Rahman. The actor rose to the challenge and lent his own flair to the character, infusing every line with wit and gusto.

Directed by Puan Sri Tiara Jacquelina, the musical raises the game and gives us a glimpse of what all stage productions in Malaysia could be.

By the time Harimau Malaya scored its final goal against South Korea in the 1980 Olympic qualifying games, OlaBola The Musical had inspired pride not only for our national football team, but for our local arts scene.