Review: LKY (Metropolitan Productions)

lkymusicalVenue: Marina Bay Sands (Singapore), Jul 21 – Aug 16, 2015
Book: Tony Petito
Story: Meira Chand
Music: Dick Lee
Lyrics: Stephen Clark
Director: Steven Dexter
Cast: Sharon Au, Benjamin Chow, Radhi Khalid, Vester Ng, Adrian Pang, Dayal Gian Singh, Sebastian Tan

Theatre review
Propaganda involves the telling of lies, usually by governments, to influence a population toward its own conception of an endorsed attitude. Aside from the always contentious nature of that sense of an approved and absolute outcome, what constitutes the nature of lies, and truth, are always ambiguous. There is no doubt that the achievements of Singapore’s legendary founding father, Lee Kuan Yew remains a stunning accomplishment, but the stories surrounding the man, like those of every other personality of such enormous fame, are enigmatic, sometimes tenuously so, and constantly debated over. In LKY, attempts at interpreting historical events leading up to the independence of Singapore, are understandably moderate. In the face of ever-conflicting memories and dissenting opinions of a shared past, the musical is careful to depict the country’s biography with sufficient heterogeneity to provide an impression of diversity in order that the work does not translate with a conceited Disney-like quality of convenient idealism, but it does predictably, take the last word, ultimately adhering to dominant ideologies of “what must have been”.

It is clear at every stage of the plot that no surprises will have an opportunity to rear its ugly head, which results in storytelling that suffers from a lack of dramatic tension, although the component of sentimentality is certainly not in shortage. Music by Dick Lee is expertly created not only to deliver the compelling emotional power equivalent to that of any successful mainstream musical, it uses patriotic sensibilities to manufacture irresistibly rousing tunes that takes hold of its audience with a level of conviction impossible to deny. Steven Dexter’s sophisticated direction ensures a captivatingly energetic show, with thoughtful and dynamic use of space that fascinates our senses at all times (brilliantly visualised by designers, Gabriel Chan on lights, and sets by Takis), and with distinct and coherent characters who help the often complex narrative flow with swift and graceful efficiency.

The mammoth task of encapsulating Lee’s extraordinarily active life over a twenty year period is less elegantly developed. Although Tony Petito’s book is not overly reductive of the period, its many renderings of significant moments in Singapore’s 50’s and 60’s are fleeting and, without the luxury of time for deeper political dissection, those crucial milestones become confusing for an audiences that are unlikely to be aficionados of political history. Also disappointing is the show’s inability to humanise its subjects, with an air of mythology persisting in its representation of an impossibly earnest host of personalities.

Adrian Pang stars as Lee, in a performance full of polish, but with no room for edge. Pang’s work is confident and accomplished, and in spite of an ordinary singing voice, provides a gravity to his clearly simplified role, which prevents the production from turning too lightweight. Without allowing a more multi-dimensional character to form, our affiliation with the icon is kept distant. Revealing no flaws, we are prevented from relating to Lee with greater closeness, and may even begin to regard his story in the production with some level of suspicion. Lee’s wife Kwa Geok Choo is the only feminine presence in a cast of more than 20. It is deeply unfortunate that women are eradicated from this important tale of nation building, and even though Kwa is shown to be highly intelligent, her role symbolises scarce more than a supportive and painfully traditional woman behind the great leader. Performed by Sharon Au, the part is virtually inconsequential to the show’s narratives, but due to her brief appearances in many key sequences, it is a memorable one. As with the title role, Kwa is written with a woeful blandness that the actor evidently finds challenging for creating anything substantial. There is a marked absence of authenticity in the woman being portrayed, but the two leads demonstrate a comfortable chemistry that delivers an ultimately convincing wife and husband pairing.

Stronger in voice, and in charisma, is Benjamin Chow as Lim Chin Siong, Lee’s adversary in the piece, who has the advantage of being attributed both light and dark qualities, thereby allowing a more nuanced approach than others. Chow manifests a commanding physicality that confirms his character’s leadership qualities, and his construction of a passionate figure of politics has a magnificence that frequently overshadows the comparatively mild “goody two shoes” version of Lee on this particular occasion. It must be noted also, that Radhi Khalid as Tunku Abdul Rahman, and Dayal Gian Singh as S. Rajaratnam are important features in a too frequently monoethnic perspective of early Singapore.

Every nation’s identity requires its own heroes and myths. The arbitrariness of borders are made material through the weaving of histories and legends, so that meaning and values can be manufactured for the hope of unifying peoples. Tensions always exist in the pursuit of common ideologies, because truth is always multifarious. In art, all things are possible but truth is fundamental. In LKY, the truths that we see are valid, but they do not offer fresh perspectives and serve only to reinforce the status quo. Mozart is played worldwide every minute, and Shakespeare is re-staged every day. The repetition of stories is central to being human, for the need to shape our understanding of the world never ceases, but artists have the responsibility to contribute something beyond common knowledge, especially in the making of something that is more than familiar.

Review: Tartuffe (Nine Years Theatre)

nineyearsVenue: National Museum of Singapore (Singapore), Feb 4 – 8, 2015
Playwright: Molière (Mandarin translation by Nelson Chia)
Director: Nelson Chia
Cast: Mia Chee, Jalyn Han, Hang Qian Chou, Koh Wan Ching, Neo Haibin, Darius Tan, Jean Toh
Image by Bernie Ng

Theatre review (first published at Auditorium Magazine)

The most noble function of humour, is that it allows for difficult things to be said. Taboo subjects are suddenly open for discussion under the guise of laughter, and with a pretence of jest and banter, sensitive issues can be dealt with in a manner so that the likelihood of causing offence is minimalised (and self preservation for the comic is usually secured). Where there is a sore spot, there inevitably lies an area of contention that represents fertile ground for artists to investigate. In the theatre, in particular, comedy is often used on surface levels to entertain, while it advocates socio-political perspectives that may be less effectively rendered within other contexts, or in fact, completely inappropriate to articulate in the absence of comedic devices.

Molière’s Tartuffe was first performed in 1664. but its resonances persist, and productions continue to appear all over the world in wildly different incarnations. Its themes of religion and hypocrisy, along with the miscarriages of justice in relation to patriarchal forms of economic organisation, are more than familiar; in societies everywhere, these are problems that people grapple with veritably. Singapore is one of the more advanced Asian countries, without the chronic wealth disparity that neighbouring places face, but its history of secrecy and scandal pertaining to the upper echelons in governmental, business and religious bodies, connects firmly with the acerbity of Molière’s play. It remains a problem that men in high places often wield their power in self-interested and misguided ways, behind our backs and to the detriment of communities within their influence, so the relevance and importance of Tartuffe as a timeless farce cannot be understated.

Nelson Chia’s direction places emphasis on the poignancy of the narrative’s themes and stories. The sociological implications of the title character’s villainy as well as the instances of aristocratic ignorance are clearly demonstrated, so that the moral of the parable is resolute and prominent. Chia’s own adaptation draws a beautiful parallel between Tartuffe’s behaviour and contemporary concerns with religious extremism, but his text is also compassionate to personal practices of faith, mindful that religion per se is not the enemy, but the corruption of our spiritual lives is what we are to be wary of. This Chinese language version introduces an alternate ending, replacing the original’s somewhat frothy wedding sequence with a surprisingly dark but authentic reading of consequences that was perhaps previously absent. Also meaningful is the way gender is presented in the production. Orgon’s misogyny and cruelty in forcing his daughter to abandon the man she loves in order to marry another of her father’s choice, and Marianne’s own obedience are obviously problematic by our standards, but Chia depicts that injustice with sensitivity, and a necessary gravity that reveals the repugnance of that situation. It is noteworthy that the voice of reason, Cléante is played by female actor Koh Wan Ching, whose work adds an unusual dimension that encourages a distinctly gendered interpretation of the text. It can be seen that a dichotomy is formed, with wisdom only ever emerging from the feminine, and all male characters straying far from the heroic. Traditional patriarchy is a problem, and we see it exemplified here.

Less successful however, is the play’s comedy. Molière’s unmistakeable absurdity is watered down and portrayed with a disappointing naturalism. Without sufficient laughs, the work is left with scenes that seem too didactic, and the shortage of irony in performances makes the script’s frequent sarcasm seem awkward. The abundance of earnestness in the company’s approach is comforting to observe, but also a mismatch for the writing’s raucous tone. There is to be sure, a sense of humour at work, but one that is not always appropriately gauged. Hang Qian Chou is entirely miscast as Tartuffe. The role requires a flamboyance and cutting satirical edge that the actor struggles to locate, and although his creation feels genuine, the lack of theatricality in his work is a substantial flaw. Theatre is always a collaborative endeavour, where individual talents merge to produce something that encompasses diverse skills and perspectives. Chia’s Tartuffe seems to be of a singular vision, and it is to his credit that the production is a cohesive one, but many in his cast appear stifled and are able to express only within regimented frameworks.

Exceptions include Darius Tan who shows excellent conviction and professional focus in the role of Orgon, head of the house. With Tan’s youthful energy, impact is slightly lost of a man desperate to find salvation beyond death, and the familial connotations of wills and property one leaves behind are also diminished, but his sense for timing and dramatic tension is a considerable asset to the production. Tan has a good sense of plot dynamics, and he conveys relationships and personality transitions with charm and clarity. It is not unusual that those who play the sprightly housemaid character Dorine would make an impression, but Jalyn Han is exceptional on this stage. Her vibrant energy contributes an aliveness to scenes, with impulses that feel spontaneous and fresh, a contrast to several other moments in the show that come across too arduously rehearsed. Han’s confident and entertaining presence is a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere that can tend toward being slightly rigid, and her intuitive creativity keeps us engaged and amused while maintaining a simultaneously coherent sense of storytelling.

Design elements are deliberately basic, but they reference the era of Louis XIV appropriately. The set consists of just three doorways and two pieces of furniture, with wings and crossover completely exposed, indicating a minimalist spirit that values the distilled essences of things over ornamentation, and an attentiveness toward the craft of performance above all else. The production is not the prettiest or the most extravagant, but it is certainly and thoroughly honest. All we have before our eyes are actors with their craft, and no apologies are made for this. The entertainment value of this Tartuffe is not wholly gratifying, and if we had laughed harder, the emotional impact of Molière’s classic would have been more affecting. Nevertheless, the story is well told, and its valuable lessons are imparted with salience. We leave knowing exactly what is being communicated, if only we are able to feel it too.

Review: An Enemy Of The People (Nine Years Theatre)

rsz_1522124_273651802782255_1915973110_nVenue: National Museum of Singapore (Singapore), Jan 8 – 11, 2014
Playwright: Henrik Ibsen (Mandarin translation by Nelson Chia)
Director: Nelson Chia
Actors: Rei Poh, Mia Chee, Hang Qian Chou, Neo Hai Bin, Jean Toh

Theatre review
This is a story about truth, greed, and democracy. Originally published in 1882, its central themes remain relevant and powerful. The play capitalises on our fundamental need to seek not only for truths, but also for personal materialistic gain, and of course the struggle between the two. Nelson Chia’s translation is faithful to the original, and his direction of the text is a straightforward one. There is an emphasis on giving Ibsen’s work and ideas absolute focus, with no obvious liberties taken for updates or reinterpretations. What results is a kind of language and “period” tonality that is fascinatingly quirky. It is simultaneously realistic yet unusual, which gives the production a sense of wonder and theatricality. Visual design elements should also be noted for their effectiveness and refinement.

Performances are committed and disciplined. A sense of polish and measuredness permeates the proceedings, and the precision at which the story is told gives the show not only an air of professionalism but also a rare beauty. Lead man Rei Poh steals the show with moments of flamboyance and pomposity. His portrayal of the hero invites doubt, and disallows convenient certainty, giving the play a complexity that necessitates thought and discussion. The cast of five is a young one, but there is no question that they take this work seriously. This however, comes at the cost of the depiction of sarcasm and delivery of humour, which are evident in Ibsen’s writing. The ensemble’s attention on plot and realism does make the story crystal clear, but some of the comedy seems to have been sacrificed in the process. Perhaps a slightly exaggerated sense of performance could be introduced, so that the play’s farcical nature can be elevated.

An Enemy Of The People is a political story, but the production does not use it to push forth with a simple reading of social mechanics. Indeed, it portrays politics and economies as being problematic by nature, and hence, ambiguities lay central to our existences. It is to the company’s credit that these complex ideas are presented with simplicity, succinctness and a lot of elegance.

Review: Notre Dame De Paris (Base Entertainment)

14247-140-7[1]Venue: Marina Bay Sands (Singapore), Dec 17, 2013 – Jan 11, 2014
Book: Victor Hugo
Music: Riccardo Cocciante
Lyrics: Luc Plamondom (English translation by Will Jennings)
Director: Giles Maheu
Actors: Alessandra Ferrari, Matt Laurent, Robert Marien, Richard Charest, Alberto Mangia Vinci, Ian Carlyle, Elicia MacKenzie

Theatre review
The story unfolds with a lack of clarity, and the English lyrics are less than elegant, but this “Musical Spectacular” features a cast of astounding talent (largely Canadian), and their work makes for an evening of inspiration and fantastic entertainment.

Robert Marien is outstanding as Frollo, with a magnificent voice that is world class. The songs he performs showcase his talents well, and allow for the performer to steal the show effortlessly. Alessandra Ferrari plays Esmeralda, impressing her audience with a vocal range that will remain unforgettable. Even though her role is spectacularly anti-feminist, Ferrari is able to charm her way and make her audience fall into endearment.

Choreography is relatively conventional, but the team of dancers and acrobats perform at a level that can only be described as stellar. We are treated to an incredibly high energy and accomplished presentation, with influences from jazz, modern and break dance, along with shades of Cirque du Soleil and the Eurovision Song Contest. Yes, things do get kitschy, but they are irresistibly so.

The theatre seats 2,155 but today’s session probably was less than a quarter filled. The performers were entirely unperturbed and gave their all, and the audience was obviously swept away. The standing ovation at the end of the evening was genuine, and well deserved.