As the Workshop Players get set to ‘come out of hybernation’ by going down memory lane with “The Best of Broadway”, Purnima Pilapitiya catches up  with director Jerome De Silva and some of the cast members One night. One stage. A colourful cast of characters, some who aren’t even human. It seems near impossible to [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Stepping out and looking back


Family affair: Sanith de S. Wijeyeratne as Pumba and Surein de S. Wijeyeratne as Timon with Sahein as young Simba

As the Workshop Players get set to ‘come out of hybernation’ by going down memory lane with “The Best of Broadway”, Purnima Pilapitiya catches up  with director Jerome De Silva and some of the cast members

One night. One stage. A colourful cast of characters, some who aren’t even human. It seems near impossible to peg all this down in one word or a phrase. The Workshop Players simply call it “The Best of Broadway”. In less than a week the performing company will take the stage for a variety show giving us glimpses from the productions that have cemented their name in Sri Lanka’s theatre scene over the past 20 years.

“There’s a bit of a storyline in each medley,” explains the Workshop Players founder director Jerome De Silva, who along with the other directors and senior cast members have selected pieces that are both iconic and entertaining for this particular show presented by the Musaeus College Past Pupils Association. For Jerome, this will also be a “coming out of hibernation”. For the night’s performers and the audience this will be a jazz-step down memory lane. For Jerome and many of the senior cast members it’s also a chance to revisit the music and characters they brought to life these past decades.

On our cover are Dmitri Gunatilake and Jehan Aloysius in a scene from The Phantom of the Opera

Jerome himself will be taking on the much vaunted role of the Phantom which he was to play in the ill-fated 2002 production along with that of Captain Von Trap from The Sound of Music and Agustin Magaldi, Eva Peron’s slick, first beau in Evita.

With less than a week before the show, tickets are selling out rapidly. Sanith de Silva Wijeyeratne can only explain it as part of the appeal of the musicals. “One of the things Workshop consistently does is a show close to its international standard,” he says. A founding member, Sanith and his brother Surein remember themselves as 19-year-olds whose theatre education was limited to singing in choirs in school productions. “At that time we hadn’t done anything on this level,” he admits; the band of young actors led by Jerome never dreamt that they would evolve into a production house in itself, with their own lighting and sound engineers.

The direction and choreography have been done keeping to the original storylines but with a lot of revamping. “Les Mis ( Les Miserables) is very different now from what it used to be 20 years ago,” Sanith says, a few of them having recently gone to New York and seen some of the Broadway shows. “They keep evolving,” with shows using more and more technology and stagecraft making the visual impact so much greater, he points out.

This show is more than reliving the nostalgia. It gives him the chance to do a number from one of his favourite Workshop productions as well as don an extremely heavy warthog costume. “Pumba has stuck to me whether I like it or not,” Sanith chuckles. He was a member of the 70-strong cast of The Lion King (1990-2000) –one of their most expensive and intricate productions. Dancers on stilts practising the gait of giraffes and an elephant manned by four people, the size of the Lionel Wendt doors sets Sanith on an animated and still awed description of the sold-out production that has stayed in theatre-lovers’ minds. It’s why “The Best of Broadway” includes a medley of songs from The Lion King.

Singing “Hakuna Matata” in Pumba’s signature operatic grunt while manipulating the single largest prop, Sanith’s partner in crime the nasal, wisecracking meerkat Timon, will be played by his brother Surein. Sharing the stage with them will be his son Sahein, a proud second generation Workshopper, who’ll be playing the role of little Simba.

While Sanith was the envisioned ideal to play Pumba, Surein de Silva Wijeyeratne’s take on Timon was simply a twist of fate. Workshop’s Director of Music, Surein is usually found behind the scenes or at the sound table. Playing the other half of the hilarious Disney duo came more as a necessity when the original actor fell ill before the show. “Playing opposite my brother made it that much easier,” he recalls, their obvious chemistry and comic timing smoothing out the little mishaps onstage ultimately making them and Hakuna Matata one of the musical’s most entertaining moments. Carrying around that comic image may not be by choice. “But when people talk about it 15 years later you know you’ve made an impact,” Surein adds.

Performing the same numbers can get stale, but not for Shanuki De Alwis, Workshop’s Director of Choreography. A cast of over 70 will be filling the Musaeus College stage and “It’s never the same Workshoppers” with new faces and enthusiasm adding to the growing family, she explains. For Shanuki the ‘oomph’ factor comes with crowd scenes such as the celebratory “Masquerade” complete with elaborate costumes and quirky masks. Her personal favourites, however, are the emotional “Gethsemane” from Jesus Christ Superstar and Nala’s haunting “Shadowland” from The Lion King. “I’m thoroughly enjoying the dancing,” she smiles, and sums up the experience quite bluntly as being “a chance for us drama queens to have fun”.

For some of the younger cast members the show is more than that. “The first play I watched was Oliver,” remembers Dinesha Senaratne, who soon after followed her brother’s footsteps, joining the group for 2012’s Evita.

“The moment you say variety show people will want to see the classics.” Most of the original casts from Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar and Phantom will be performing along with big, swelling standards such as “He Needs Me” from Oliver! The seminal theme from Phantom as well as performances such as Dinushka Jayawickreme’s “Climb Every Mountain” which had audiences on their feet night after night during 2008’s The Sound of Music are on the programme for The Best of Broadway.

But it’s the Lion King medley that hits a chord for Dinesha. “We never got to be a part of that. You get to experience something you couldn’t before,” she smiles. Stephan Anoj Wijayaratne feels the same. Although he played Raoul in Phantom and Peter in Jesus Christ Superstar, the 23-year-old admits that he wasn’t interested in theatre growing up. Having watched the Retro 20 Show in 2012 he left the theatre with the songs still stuck in his head. Being able to perform songs from the old shows are special for the simple reason that “we might not get to see these again”. Anoj’s favourite is a far cry from the flashier numbers. For him it’s the poignant “The Last Supper” from Jesus Christ Superstar. One of his favourite productions, the rock opera and playing Peter almost “takes you back to life during that time” he says. An iconic scene in history, the music and the unassuming complexity of the scene in the musical gave him a new respect for musicals. He hopes it will be a similar stirring experience for the audience.

“The Best of Broadway” will go on the boards of the Musaeus College Auditorium on July 25 at 7.30 p.m. A few tickets (priced at Rs. 2500, 1500, and balcony Rs. 1000 and 750 are available at Commons, Tea Avenue (Barnes Place), Cargills Food City (Staples Street) and Musaeus College (Rosmead Place entrance). Contact 0779510447 for details.

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