Find out what goes on behind the red curtain as we uncover the real personalities under the makeup at one of the best cabaret shows in Bangkok: Playhouse Theatre at Shanghai Mansion hotel in Chinatown.
The world of ladyboys (or katoeys as they say in Thailand) is intriguing and often misrepresented, but as we discovered, there are so many diverse and interesting characters each with a story to tell. Every night of the week, at 20:00 and again at 21:30, a troupe of immaculately presented performers take to the stage to deliver an impressive performance of classic show tunes with some technical choreography thrown into the mix. However, what the audience experience during the one hour 15 minute show is the culmination of many disparate teams working together: wardrobe, stage hands, lighting and sound, choreographer, management, front of house and, of course, the dancers.
We arrived at 18:00, over two hours before show time and still several of the chorus line were practicing their dance steps, including some impressive ballet moves. We were escorted backstage, past rows of sparkling sequined dresses and into the dressing room. It was only half full but already bustling with stage hands busying themselves with props and dancers starting the laborious and transformative process of getting into magnificent drag. Over the next two hours we got to see every area and chatted with many of the performers and crew as the show became real before our eyes.
We interrupted Beer as she was applying mascara to her fake lashes. A dancer for 15 years, she started off dancing in a travelling show before following her desire to travel. She moved first to Taiwan and then to Korea finding work without the help of an agent. She performed a series of roles in theme parks and evening shows, staying for as long as it was fun. Beer had strong, clear and honest opinions about the places she has lived and worked: “In Korea people are open to ladyboys and if they have surgery they can choose to legally change their gender but in Taiwan opinions are very polarised. Some people were besotted with the exotic Thai katoey and would come to the show and ask me out for dinner, but others looked away from me in the street and treated me like a monster”.
One of the newest members of the group, 18-year-old Palm was shy and unassuming, sitting in a baggy denim shirt with her legs tightly crossed, and a thick headband holding her bleach blond hair back. Palm is a university student and has been dancing at Playhouse for a month. This is her first job. She has never had any formal dance training but learnt from watching Youtube clips and copying her favourite singer: Jennifer Lopez. When asked if anyone has come to watch her perform she said her friends from university came and sat at the back, but her parents haven’t come. This was a common theme with most of the performers. Friends are supportive, parents less so.
Jay was 90% ready for the show – just missing a giant honeycomb wig – when we spoke to her. She is considered one of the best dancers and seemed genuinely delighted at being interviewed. “Dancing is all I ever dreamed of” she exclaimed, looking down at me from six-inch heels with a beaming smile and glossy, cherry red lips. Jay told us the best thing about being in a cabaret show is “that moment, just before the first step onto the stage... closely followed by cheering and applause at the end”. When asked if anything has ever gone wrong on stage Jay told us the story of one girl who performed a handstand at the end of a routine (in heels and evening gown) but mid rotation she felt her bra come loose and two chicken fillets drop to the floor. Luckily the stage hands were alert and ran to pick them up sparing some of the embarrassment.
Aood is a lynch pin of the Playhouse Theatre operation: the longest standing member of the team – filling the dual role of cabaret dancer and company accountant – she has moved with the cabaret show from Pattaya, to Phuket, Chiang Mai and now to Bangkok. It’s an unusual combination; something she admitted with a laugh. When asked which role she preferred, she said she likes both: “I work in the office ‘til 6:00, then rush to get ready for the show”. Her parents have still never been to her performing but have finally accepted her decision to live as a ladyboy.
Bosso was one of the troupe who doesn’t dress up as a woman. He is one of the main dancers, formally trained and especially talented, his role in the show is Michael Jackson and he is a master of MJ’s famous heel kick, groin grab and twist, and can even perform an accomplished moon walk. He has been working at Playhouse Theatre almost one year and studies dance at university. He told us how happy he was at being able to do what he loves for a living, and that his parents have been supportive of his choices all the way, even though his father would have preferred him to study business administration, or something boring like that.
Surprisingly, there was none of the big egos or diva-ish characters I expected to meet. Everyone we chatted to was a committed performer and loved the opportunity to entertain each night. It’s something that Ramon, the company choreographer, must take a lot of credit for. He drills new dancers daily until they have mastered the dance routine. He watches every performance, and if you visit Playhouse Theatre, you will no doubt notice a man standing intently at the back scrutinising every move. He told me the show is constantly improving, becoming more seamless, and I must admit, the show now has further improved since when they first opened in Bangkok around one year ago. The costumes too are seriously impressive, created by Noon the costume designer. She is a ladyboy but not a performer and has a tough job of making the fantasy become real with sequins and bows and colours as well as adding small details as the show continually evolves. It’s clear the quality of design is above most other cabaret shows.
At 20:15, the lights were lowered and a booming voice welcomed guests in many languages. The curtain raised and five dancers fluttered onto the stage dressed as fairies as if plucked from one of the frescos that adorn many walls in Thai temples. We could see young Palm, Beer and Aood, their transformation quite unbelievable from just a couple of hours before, and over the next ten acts we witnessed some amazing dancing, transformative costumes and great music.
To see more photos and get more details, visit their website: Playhouse Cabaret
Playhouse Ladyboy Cabaret
- Opening Hours: 20:00 and 21:30 daily
- Address: Shanghai Mansion Hotel, Yaowarat Road, Chinatown
- Tel: +66 (0)2 024 5522
- Price Range: 1,000 baht