Set in the 1960s, the play follows the adventures of two brothers who create a chemical potion allowing them to escape reality, move to different locations where they have different interactions. As they experiment with the potion trying to realise their dreams, they also discover some truths about people and about themselves. The two-hour musical oscillates between reality and imagination, toying with our perception of life and time. By moving forth and back through both, the playwright demonstrates the universal truth that happiness can only come from within.
The work aims to follow principles of the musical genre as adopted internationally, from Broadway to the West End and beyond. It is the favourite art form of the show’s producer Ibrahim Mouris, who also wrote the text and the music for Wala Fi El-Ahlam.
The musical theatre format is an interesting choice, especially in Egypt where this art is developing very fast, with a number of experiments especially over the last few years. It’s worth mentioning that our music history either includes older operettas or leans towards commercial theatre filled with songs, most of those formats being presented with Arabic lyrics and reflecting the Arab musical canon. The imported concept of the musical performed to clearly Western compositions and Arabic lyrics is growing quite fast and attracting the attention of the audience.
In this context, Wala Fi El-Ahlam is one of the interesting attempts at presenting an original musical which meanders through local cultural backgrounds. But nomenclature aside, Wala Fi El-Ahlam is at the crossroads of numerous interesting details that make it unique, from the producer, cast and crew, to the theatre itself.
Speaking of the latter, we cannot ignore that the play reopened the Kasr El-Nil theatre, a historical space that first opened in the 1960s and featured Egypt’s greatest stars from the diva Um Kalthoum to the comedian Fouad Al-Mohandess. The theatre had been closed since the early 2010s and it is Wala Fi El-Ahlam that gave it life again. The producer has also restored the entryway and the auditorium to accommodate the viewers, and built a complete sound and light system that was needed for his play.
Wala Fi El-Ahlam is directed by Hani Afifi, with set design by Mohamed Al-Gharabawi, light design by Yasser Shaalan, choreography Sally Ahmed and costumes Marwa Aouda. The cast features Mohamed Abdo, Mona Hala, Zahra Rami, Hani Abdel- Nasser, Shadi Abdel-Salam, Manar Al-Shazli, Bahaa Al-Tombari, Christine Asham, Nadine Bray, Tala Radwan, Ibrahim Said, and Habiba Adel. The actors are joined by 15 dancers.
Here we have to stress the efforts of Al-Gharabawi who was obviously given enough freedom to create a number of sets, transporting us from a popular Egyptian street to a garden, and from the cosy interiors of a laboratory to a living room, often using the projections. The simplicity of his approach and his strong eye for detail sometimes reveals a sense of humour (e.g. through the photographs on the walls), which gives the performance a lighthearted spirit. This was complemented by masterful lighting work from Shaalan.
Almost all the artists on stage are active and well-known actors, musicians and dancers, some having experience in working across different theatres or at the Cairo Opera House. As a result, the team has high audience awareness, dynamism and skill not only to perform their respective roles as directed by Afifi but also to infuse them with their individual edge. The production follows the acting principles required in the musical where each character portrays an alluring personality, even if in some instances the actors were tempted to overact.
The hand of the director Hani Afifi, whose history in the field boasts numerous titles in theatre and musicals, is clear in this production. His mise-en-scene embroiders the text with controlled movement and much appealing spontaneity.
With all these excellent components, the choreography was somewhat hard to adapt to the musical theatre format. In general, the dance segments were well-designed, even if at times simplistic. But the devil lies in the space - or rather an abrupt linking - between the spoken word and the dance. In the international musical formats that this play aims to represent, the choreography is born of the drama and should emerge spontaneously, effortlessly and almost unexpectedly from within its depths.
In such musicals, the dance (and singing) is a second creative language of the performers, and as such it is rarely limited to an entertaining embroidery in the form of dance. Though showcasing some interesting skills of the actors on stage, Wala Fi El-Ahlam's choreography remains a decorative component, overly disconnected from the play's natural fluidity.
This brings us to Ibrahim Mouris, who in our short conversation told me that musical theatre had always attracted him the most, pointing to British and American productions as examples of the genre: “Musical theatre is at the heart of many creative skills: acting, music, singing, dancing; it is a beautiful bouquet.”
An AUC economics graduate, Mouris has always been interested in arts and music in particular. “I did not study music professionally. However, since I was a child, I started taking private piano lessons at home. When studying at the AUC in the 1990s, I founded a rock band called Tera. We performed original songs that I composed to lyrics in English,” he explains. Besides regular studies and being involved in his family business, Ibrahim maintained his passion for music throughout his life.
“Theatre with music is no stranger to Egypt. Look at live performances in the days of Sayed Darwish. The following decades brought stage plays - identified as a commercial theatre - filled with music which was always recorded. But those plays had very few music inserts in comparison to real musical theatre.”
Mouris goes on to say that Egypt does not have a developed production system dedicated to musical theatre. As a result he decided to dive into the scene by establishing his own company, Egyptian Musical Theatre. Established in 2017, the company’s first production was Leila, with music ingrained in rock. Written by Mouris and directed by Afifi, Leila was staged with 35 live musicians joining the performance each evening at the Marquee Theatre.
“Leila was a grand production that used a lot of the company’s resources. Of course, the return on investment was not very encouraging. Still, I gave it another try with Wala Fi El-Ahlam, attempting to economise on expenses a bit,” which explains why the actors sing to the recorded music.
The Wala Fi El-Ahlam music is performed and recorded by the Red Sea band, an ensemble Mouris created with his children who also play music. “One of my sons plays guitar, the other plays drums, and my daughter plays bass guitar. I join them on the keyboard,” he describes his musical family, which also supported recording the music to 15 songs written by Mouris, and performed by the actors on stage.
Mouris’ strong business mind is equally artistic. As he gives life to his passion for music and musical theatre, he also longs for “the good old times” describing Egypt in its Golden Age (1950s and 1960s) when Egyptian art (film, theatre and music) was the brightest across the Arab world. “I could go further back, but for the sake of the viewer I thought I’d place the play in the 1960s,” Mouris explains.
“I am fond of this period of Egyptian history… Its beauty was translated in the quality of life, people’s ethics, interests, etc. I see those years as being a model for the following generations. Those decades were also characterised by an abundance of arts and depth in culture. There is a lot of warmth in those distant days…”
Mouris comments that in Wala Fi El-Ahlam he draws on the values represented by the Egypt of the 1960s and prior decades, hence his choice of language and costumes is adjusted accordingly. “I know it is distant yet the play is also out of time. Definitely, I didn’t want to set the plot today,” he concludes.
Since 9 February, the play was staged four times a week, Thursday through Sunday, with the curtain falling on the last performance on 19 March. Wala Fi El-Ahlam will return to the Kasr El-Nil Theatre after Eid Al-Fitr, by the end of April.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly