Monday, May 25, 2015

'Singapura the Musical' in Review

By now, Singapura the Musical has been just about trashed by every publication that was invited to cover it, but Hawk loved it so much that he watched it not just once but twice on his own dime! Here he tells you why you too should give it a chance:

Singapura the Musical
Presented by The 4th Wall Theatre Co.
Capitol Theatre, Singapore
24th May 2015

A Review by Hawk Liu

I saw Singupura the Musical twice yesterday - just happened to be able to do so and was delighted with the experience. I loved the second time more as I saw more things that I missed the first time. What I liked about the musical was that there was so much going on that to truly enjoy it, one has to watch it a few times! In most scenes, even if there was a general focus, it was supported by quite a bit of background action. It certainly helped that the cast was quite large – over 40. Each cast member was completely committed to their roles in each scene no matter how small, or whether it was just a simple entrance and exit to contribute to the essence of the scene. I really loved the multi-action approach in making each scene come alive with many layers.

A projection screen at the back served as a gigantic backdrop where projections were used for the scenes. I was quite surprised how the projections framed the scenes so well. Three tall steel towers dominated the stage and were well used in every scene. The towers were moved around during the love duet which added a wonderful cinematic element to the conclusion during the duet. During the same duet, a moving steel bridge was cleverly used to provide movement to the scene, with the same cinematic effect - it was definitely one of my favourite scenes where the use of the set was concerned.

Within the first ten minutes of the show, I was happy to notice that it was going to be more of a sung-thru musical. There were strong influences from Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. There were quite a number of Sondheimish passages as well. The music was beautiful in most places though I did wish some of the musical lines led to stronger melodies. On the up side, there were some musical gems - all the love duets - there were many! - some of the solos, and my favourite - the music that ended the first and second act.

With a title like ‘Singapura’, one would fear propaganda coming. Fears were allayed. Although there were plenty of historic events, they were just observations. The focus of the story was clearly on the Chinese family and their lives. It was not an easy task setting the story with so many historical happenings of Singapore but I thought the staging was nicely done. The political scenes and specific historical events were played out seamlessly to give a gist of the tumultuous times without each event being overwhelming. I like the political scenes because they paint the canvas for the main characters to play out their lives. On the downside, I did wish some of the political songs were much shorter, like the song Consequences, for example, as it wasn’t a particularly attractive song towards the end.
I am not particularly keen on the guy in white appearing like a ghost in some of the scenes. As he already appeared in a few of the background videos, there was probably no need for him to appear at all. Also, I didn’t get some of the abstract ideas, like why he had to climb a ladder. For a musical like this, I did feel that there was no need for certain abstract representations because the only people who were going to get it was the director and the people on stage! Another case in point were the use of chairs in Consequences. Abstract ideas has to come through for them to make any sense to the audience, and I didn’t see that happening.

A strong element in the musical was the singing. When you gathered a group of Filipino performers (and a sprinkling of Singaporean Chinese) you would get good singing! Everyone who had any solo bit to sing was a good quality singer. Many of the main characters had voices trained for musical theatre or opera, all of them impressive. I particularly enjoyed the lovely voice of the Father (Julien Mendoza) – the sincerity and warm of delivery was beautiful. Noel Rayos who played the double roles of Chandra and Professor had an impression operatic sound in song and speech. Unfortunately, for my ears, he drove the voice too hard in the dialogue of Professor and I almost feel my own throat hurting whenever he spoke. The other one who drove his singing voice too hard was the Man in White. I did think it was possible to play a hard character without sacrificing beauty of tone. Don’t get me wrong, both of them had wonderful voices, maybe a little less driving the voices too hard would do wonders on discerning ears.

As actors, I saw no less than full commitment to the action and drama on stage. All the crowd scenes came alive because every actor was a hundred percent. Well done!

There had been a few things said about the attempt at the Singaporean accent by the majority Filipino cast. In my opinion, there was no need to use a lot of Singlish. Sometimes, we don’t realise that we as a people don’t all speak English / Singlish the same way across the country. Everyone around us could be speaking different degrees of Singlishness or Englishness. The accents used by the cast was not unlike that used by many of our own Peranakans, Malays and Indians. I think the cast did an admirable job with the English and the sprinkling of Singlish they chose to speak. Everyone speaking Singlish left, right and centre is a very unrealistic situation in Singapore today or any day and I didn’t expect the cast to do that too. And not everyone could be a Meryl Streep. So, the token amount of Singlish used in the show was definitely enough. Too much would only be awful, and to speak broken English like we (actually) do in real life would be disastrous.

Now, on to the orchestra. The musicians did a wonderful job playing the beautiful arrangements – however, please don’t play louder than the singers! I suspect the onus lay in the hands of the sound engineer to strike the balance – it didn’t happen! And a pet peeve of mine – the drums were unrelenting in filling every bar with a hundred beats in some of the songs. This was a musical where the songs can be very verbose and the unrelenting sounds of the drums masked many of the words,  the result being that it was difficult to hear what the actors were singing.

Although this wasn’t a perfect musical – which one is? – there were many good things to enjoy. See it before the run ends in early June. The musical gems in many of the songs and the amazing singing are enough for me to want to see it again.

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  1. This is like the most unbiased and honest journalism / criticism I've read about the musical. Kudos to you sir... Thumbs up! can't wait to see it on Wednesday. Cheers to art! - lav

  2. luv,
    thank you. i wanted to give praises where they are due and i felt that most of the good stuff in the show were not given due credit. Tends to happen when the critics themselves have never been performers.

  3. It is so refreshing to read a review that is not simply jumping on the 'bitching bandwagon'. It's a musical, for goodness' sake, not a slice of life. I too loved the singing and the staging. I urge everyone, Singaporean, expat or tourist, to see Singapura. Filter out the hate-filled xenophobic rants and just enjoy... You might learn something, too!

  4. Nice try, i am a critic AND a performer and i can tell you this musical sucked. The plotting was tired, the pace was just wrong, and even with Singapore JUST as a background (so we can forgive the accents and lack of Singaporen actors) - the story or stories weren't delved into enough! That's just the tip of the iceberg. But it proves my point that critics are right on this one - and i AM a performer - and I declare that this musical was bad.

  5. Positive evaluation or criticism should recognize the achievements of the candidate. It is not blatantly about condemning him or her for failures or absence of what you think should be attained. I am dismayed that the critic merely practises negative assessment. Education shouldn't merely intensify or fossilize our prejudices or preconceptions.


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