Crazy about cabaret
The Playhouse joins the push to make Bangkok the world's capital of transgender entertainment extravaganzas
Bangkok danced another step closer to becoming the world's cabaret hub when the Playhouse Theater Cabaret opened at the Asia Hotel in October. After a deliberately careful start, it's joined the already long list of clubs that offer "gay cabaret" in the capital as well as Chiang Mai, Pattaya, Samui and Phuket.
The demand, of course, comes from tourists. Straight Westerners and increasingly more visitors from east Asia can't resist a "safe" opportunity to gawk at the most beautiful men (or former men) on the planet - Thai ladyboys "in the wild", as it were. And no one gets offended.
But best not call the cabaret performers ladyboys.
"I really hate it that some people still use terms like katoey and ladyboys," says Australian hotelier-entrepreneur David Paul Shrubsole, who founded and runs the Playhouse Theater Cabaret.
"So what? They can dance, entertain and make a living for themselves. Thailand has moved past that point, and we're living in a very accepting part of the world. The rest of the world - even America with its same-sex marriage - looks up to Thailand because we've been very generous, all over the Kingdom. There's no place like this in the world.
"Thailand, and Bangkok in particular, are very unique places. These are performers with great potential, and the world can see that."
The Playhouse astonishes the occupants of its 300 seats with 30 pairs of gorgeous legs, a string of mesmerising Broadway-style performances and the promise to be Bangkok's first "boutique cabaret".
It began as a small act at a Pattaya hotel and ventured to Phuket and Chiang Mai before finding its home in Bangkok. The Playhouse venue in the Asia Hotel was formerly home to Bangkok's longest-running cabaret show, Calypso, which moved to new digs on the Chao Phraya River at Asiatique.
"We've been delighted with what's happened because we really do want to take things slowly," says Shrubsole. "We offer great competition for the established cabarets, and competition is very healthy in the entertainment business. And we're very committed to raising the level of tourism in Thailand. What we have now we see as a starting point for us in Bangkok, and we'll definitely develop into something much more in the near future, a step forward in the performing-arts sector."
Playhouse's twice-nightly shows feature spectacular sets, with the backdrops switched subtly between routines.
What most might find pleasing is that there's no stage patter. There are no welcoming speeches or announcements that give away the surprises in store. Instead, the host - wearing tights and feathers - mimes an introduction at the beginning of each number. It sends your imagination running wild rather than dulling expectations. And the host loiters nearby through the whole show, cracking jokes by gesture alone or dancing with the production crew.
After the initial dazzle of the sequins, boas and flowery frills, the performers immediately impress viewers with the evident hard work they've put into their perfect lip-syncs and beautifully synchronised moves. The song selection is thoughtfully balanced between old and new, niche and commercial, and there are few solo performances.
Moving beyond the typical cabaret production, the Playhouse makes it clear that it takes the name "playhouse" seriously, adding acrobats and other circus entertainment to the line-up for a more rounded experience. It's hoping to soon have some of the artists actually singing as well, rather than just lip-syncing.
"We rehearse a few hours every day and an English tutor comes to teach us how to pronounce the words correctly so we don't just mumble through the song," Niracha "Nicha" Pattanachian tells us as she prepares to hit the stage. She's one of the troupe's veterans and has pretty much heard it all.
"A lot of people might look down on us and call us whatever, but I'm just happy I can do what I've always loved to do and put smiles on people's faces. And I can support myself and my family too. Besides dancing, the management teaches us to be business-savvy and constantly educates us about show-business know-how. What more can I ask?"
Meanwhile, the Mambo Theatre is alive and kicking in a gigantic venue on Rama III Road. Third-gender cabaret shows, the long-established dance troupe reckons, are one of Thailand's prime exports. Since its inception in 1990, Mambo has arranged performances for its artists around the world, including a yearly tour of the Middle East and Europe.
"We sell entertainment, and everyone loves to be entertained, regardless of format and style," says Tarnhatai Sarigakham, who handles international sales.
"What attracts the crowd is mainly the natural beauty of the Thai transgender and transvestite. We have the best - and it's best not to keep them to ourselves! Besides, we're not just parading them onstage - they dance and perform just as well as other performers. Throw in good lighting and sound, a light-hearted atmosphere, extravagant costumes and sets and non-stop entertainment, who could say no to a Thai cabaret show?"
_ The Playhouse Theater Cabaret is in the basement of the Asia Hotel next to the Ratchatewi BTS station. Shows are at 8.15 and 9.45 nightly, each lasting 75 minutes. Admission is Bt1,200 and includes one drink. Find out more at (02) 215 0571 and www.PlayhouseThailand.com.
_ The Mambo Theater is on Rama III Road between sois 57 and 59. It has three shows a night - 7.15, 8.30 and 10. Admission is Bt800 with a drink. Call (02) 294 7381 to 2.