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Michael Chiang goes from Army Daze to tai-tai craze

Fourteen years. That’s how long it’s been since Michael Chiang last wrote a play. That would be My Lonely Tarts back in 1999.

Fourteen years. That’s how long it’s been since Michael Chiang last wrote a play. That would be My Lonely Tarts back in 1999.

So how do you make a comeback? Why, take out a couple of your ol’ reliables and mash them up!

Yes, that’s how the playwright (sort of) described his latest play, High Class, which opens in July.

Mixing the “Army Daze template” of five unusual characters and Mixed Signals’ “TV talkshow template”, High Class is all about the mother of all tai-tais coming up with a reality TV show where five tai-tai wannabes battle it out.

Directed by Beatrice Chia-Richmond, it stars Nikki Muller as the main tai-tai; and Siti Khalijah, Audrey Luo, Elizabeth Lazan, Serena Ho, Mina Kaye as the wannabes (Gloria Tan alternates with Siti K). Andrew Lua, Ebi Shankara, Kimberly Chan, Shane Mardjuki and Timothy Wan round up the cast.

“It’s exactly the same. Very predictable,” he laughed. (Yes, this is why we all love the refreshingly self-effacing and unabashedly populist bloke who gave us Beauty World.)

Of course, High Class is hardly cut and paste material. The quite recent 25th anniversary run of Army Daze had sort of spurred him on to write again for the stage (after being busy helming MediaCorp Publishing and doing the occasional tweaks for the various runs of Beauty World and Army Daze — which, incidentally, will be getting yet another run a week after High Class).

And the process was “unnerving”, said Chiang, who admitted he was initially anxious of getting writer’s block but it all turned out well as High Class started taking shape in January.

Besides, Chiang already knew what his subject matter was and the sources of inspiration he could draw from, which were films from the `50s and `60s from Shaw Brothers or even Marilyn Monroe flicks like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

“I grew up watching a lot of comedies of (women) looking for a rich husband. There’s a kind of innocence in these,” said Chiang, who brings it to the present with the reality TV angle.

“If this was the only chance of making that jump, would you do it?” he asked.

But director Chia-Richmond clarifies that while it’ll have a “tinge” of the `50s and `60s feel, High Class isn’t a “retro” play (and, while we’re at it, it’s not a musical either despite having a couple of songs from Don Richmond).

Ultimately, the play is about the tai tai culture of today and poses a question for today’s ladies. “Do women still want to be tai tais in 2013?” said Chia-Richmond.

Well, TV host and theatre first-timer Nikki Muller, who plays lead tai tai Alexis, actually became one during auditions.

“She came dressed up as a tai tai. Bright red outfit, printed scarf and large sunglasses. When we asked her how old she was, she said 41. She’s very funny,” recalled Chiang.

The 27-year-old Muller’s, erm, method acting has gone further: She’s been hanging out and having lunch with tai tais, gone ballroom dancing…

And the tai tai life wasn’t exactly what she expected it to be. “They really maximise the hours of the day! It’s never been an exclusive club and I’ve found them to be open and generous,” she said.

Muller has yet to tell her newfound tai tai buddies the reason she’s been hanging out with them but she hopes her, erm, immersion will give a clearer picture of who they really are.

“In the play, you uncover and unravel the stereotype,” she said.

(High Class runs from July 5 to 14, 8pm, Drama Centre Theatre. With 3pm and 5pm matinees. Tickets from S$42 to S$79 at Sistic. Same deets for the next run of Army Daze from July 19 to 28.)

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