Behind the cartwheels and feathers and all the madcap pageantry of Bangkok cabaret theatre there’s also plenty of hard work, ambition and funny stories.
The feature dancer emerges slowly from what looks like a glittering acorn at the back of the stage, clad in a skin tight white body-stocking festooned with turquoise feathers. Amid the opening strains of Pure Imagination – from Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory – backing dancers flutter in from the wings decked out in phra ratcha niyom, traditional Thai formal dresses.
This colourful, slightly baffling scene occurs at the Playhouse Cabaret Theatre, underneath the Asia Hotel, during the first of two nightly shows.
As the song finishes, the dancer bows and rushes off-stage. The curtains part and the scene changes into a Vegas-style party. Christina Aguilera’s Can’t Keep A Good Girl Down blasts out and a full ensemble of dancers, some in dresses – others in snappy gold waistcoats – writhe, strut, tumble and cartwheel across the stage. It’s high-tempo, high-energy stuff, which soon segues into a rendition of Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal, in which the lead, wearing a dreadlocked wig, breaks out a more-than-passable moonwalk.
There are 14 numbers in all – Rihanna’s Umbrella gets mixed with Singin’ In The Rain, pirouetting showgirls sharing the stage with Gene Kelly lookalikes in trench coats. And I’m pretty sure Tina Turner makes an appearance in there as well.
The man behind all this fun and frivolity is Ramon Vizmanos, the Playhouse’s Filipino choreographer who has led many lives himself – having lectured in tourism and hospitality, worked in airport anti-bomb security and been employed as production designer and stuntman in films.
Today, though, he is wearing his dance instructor’s hat to audition new dancers for the Playhouse. He can quickly separate those who with potential from those without, although experience has taught him even those with two left feet may still have something to offer.
“I’ve been teaching for almost 30 years so if they stand and move a little bit I can tell if they can dance,” he explains as we wait for the first applicant.
“Sometimes these new dancers don’t really have a background but that’s not so important if they put their hearts into it. If they can dance a little bit, then we can train them. They’re mostly students, 19 or 20 years old. I always ask them if they have any other skills we could incorporate into the show as well.
“I can always take something special and add it to the show – it’s like a recipe. Can they do a back flip or a forward flip? For guys, can they breakdance?”
That’s not to say that Ramon is after bells and whistles only. His new recruits undergo training to ensure they can step in at the last minute and fill any role in the show.
“We do real dancing – we don’t just walk around in a big costumes,” he says. “We’re showing talent so we try to train them the proper way. I give them some ballet, jazz, hiphop and tap. We expect them to be able to do all of it.”
Perhaps naively, I had not at this point grasped that the vast majority of Ramon’s cast are ladyboys. And so the first applicant arrives – Mai, a shy, long-limbed 17-year-old still in high school. She takes to the stage and is immediately joined by two of Ramon’s dancers who, without putting it too bluntly, are patently men in drag. There is no concealing my surprise. The penny drops.
Mai begins nervously but she’s not without some moves. The other dancers encourage her as they go through a couple of quick numbers, Ramon pausing to demonstrate a quick fire eight-step which Mai then makes a decent fist of repeating.
After the audition, Ramon, as promised, asks her if she has any other skills that he can use in the show. Without hesitating, Mai falls into the splits. Ramon nods, impressed.
“She’s still in high school and did gymnastics when she was young,” he explains afterwards. “She can be trained – not all dancers can do the splits.”
It is as this point that I sheepishly reveal my complete ignorance of what has been going on.
“That girl, Mai,” I begin. “She was a girl, right?”
Ramon grins. The fact that I couldn’t tell – and I really couldn’t; Mai looked every inch a spindly teenage girl – is further confirmation that she’s worth hiring, splits and all.
“People always ask: ‘How many girls are there?’ There’s none,” he says. “I know they’re not ladies so it’s easy for me – the first thing is always the feet.”
Later, I meet David Paul Shrubsole, the Playhouse’s managing director. In an Australian accent barely diminished by many years abroad, he admits he is from Adelaide “a million years ago”.
David’s background is in hair and make-up for musical theatre companies, having worked in productions of Cats and Miss Saigon before coming to Thailand to look after visiting VIPs.
The Playhouse has only been in Bangkok since last year but David has been in the industry for much longer.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time and we always had a passion to come back to Bangkok,” he says. “I’ve always been focused on where we want to be long-term.”
Cabaret, of course, has a reputation for being slightly schlocky, high-kitsch with lots of fluff and feathers. But David takes the business very seriously and is adamant people’s perceptions can be changed.
“We’re based on passion and developing young performers,” he says.
“It’s an ensemble and it’s not just men in dresses. Cabaret can be like that sometimes and we all just get lumped together. We’re not saying we’re better or smarter – this is the Playhouse and this is what we do.”
That said, running cabaret theatre in Thailand with a cast of ladyboys hasn’t been all smooth sailing. After some prodding, David recalls a couple of incidents where not all went according to plan.
“One night, during the show, I turned to Ramon and said, ‘Gee the effects look good’,” he says. “That was because the lights were on fire!
“Another night, we were doing a show and there was a pond in front of the stage as part of the set and on the first number, our feature dancer was so excited that she just ran straight into it. First number. That was great.”
And, naturally, there are places where there simply isn’t the demand for this kind of cabaret.
“Up in Chiang Mai – they’ll never be ready for it,” David says. “You can’t go up there selling sequins and feathers – all they want is cymbals and clicking frogs.”
Anyone who’s seen Showgirls or Black Swan knows about backstage rivalry in dance troupes. It invites the question: are ladyboys better behaved or worse?
“We’re very strict – we don’t tolerate any nonsense,” David says. “If we did, it would be like Showgirls. They’d rip each other’s dresses off before they got to the wings.
‘‘We teach a core international work ethic. We travel with them, take them out and we’re proud to be seen with them. But they know that when they’ve got a show, they have to be there on time, ready to be on stage.”
If there is, in some quarters, an uneasiness about this industry, David is unfazed.
“I run hotels and sit on boards and when people ask me what I do, they’re quite surprised when I tell them I’ve got a bunch of ladyboys,” he says. “But often my bottom line is better than at their Toyota factory.
“The challenge is to change people’s minds, getting people in the real world to understand that we run a sensible business.”
And, as David points out, the Playhouse show is demanding. There are 14 numbers and the performers are in every one of them, in and out of velcro costumes with a 15-minute turnaround before the second show.
“Ramon chooses people who are committed from the heart,” he says. “We have those who waft in and waft out and do a song or the divas in the big coats but that’s not what we’re all about. We certainly don’t need another Diana Ross.”
Tina Turner will no doubt be relieved to hear it.
Asia Hotel Bangkok, 296 Phayathai Road | 02-215-0571 playhousethailand.com | Shows at 9.30pm and 11pm