Time Out Singapore: ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ Review

One of the most popular musicals in the world returns in Singapore for the third time. Gwen Pew tells us why the longest-running show on Broadway is still worth watching.

A scene from the brilliant 'Phantom of the Opera'.

A scene from the brilliant ‘Phantom of the Opera’.

3 Aug 2013: Few shows can cause the hair at the back of the necks of an entire audience to stand up with just five notes played grandly, sinisterly on an organ, the wayThe Phantom of the Opera can. It’s no secret that it is one of the most popular musicals in the world – and the longest-running show on Broadway, having just celebrated its 10,000th performance there last year – but it also means that there is a tonne of pressure on theatre companies not to screw it up. Happily, Lunchbox Productions(together with The Really Useful Group and BASE Entertainment) gave a very solid performance as the musical returns to Singapore for the third time (and proving a saving grace for the last production we saw at this venue: a completely lacklustre version of Dirty Dancing).

Based on Gaston Leroux’s French gothic novel Le Fantôme de l’Opéra, the legendary tale is about a hideously disfigured – but musically gifted – magician who exerts a reign of terror over the people of the fictitious Opera Populaire (based on the Paris Opera House) while trying to make the beautiful singer Christine Daaé fall in love with him, by disguising himself as the Phantom of the Opera.

Claire Lyon’s Christine is every bit as angelic as her character should be, yet still possesses an admirable dignity and does not come across as a weeping damsel in distress, while Anthony Downing enacts the part of Raoul, Christine’s lover, with gusto. However, it is Brad Little’s performance as the alternately terrifying and pathetic Phantom that shines. Having played the role more than 2,250 times both on Broadway and on world tours, he subtly and skilfully brought out the mystique and tragic nature of the ‘Angel of Music’, hell bent on revenge after seeing Christine fall in love with Raoul, Vicomte de Chagny. Little’s commanding voice is made even more haunting as it is echoed around the hall by an excellent sound crew. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s score is also beautifully performed by both the cast and the orchestra, who captured the passion, conflict, tragedy and suspense in every note.

We are likewise impressed by the stunning sets – the opulence of the gilded opera house contrasts starkly with the misty, candle-lit murkiness of the Phantom’s underworld – all of which are set up and cleared in a moment’s swiftness. However, while the famous chandelier was raised ceremoniously to its place above the audience at the start of the show, with all eyes focussed on its grand ascend, the scene where it was supposed to crash down didn’t turn out to be quite as dramatic as we had anticipated. Instead of a heart-stopping smash, it came down at a relatively slow speed over the crowd before swaying gently towards its landing on the stage, plastic beads tapping against each other. The orchestra tried its best to heighten the tension with a crescendo, but unfortunately the moment was lost.

That aside, this is a thoroughly enjoyable performance worthy of the hype and publicity that it has received, so go forth and embrace the ‘Music of the Night’.

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Time Out Singapore: ‘Persuant’ Preview

Jonathan Lim’s newest production is a musical dedicated to Singapore’s youth – the writer, director, actor and comedian talks to Gwen Pew a not-too-distant Singapore, where dreams have been outlawed.

Jonathan Lim

Jonathan Lim

8 May 2013: When the Singapore Lyric Opera decided to make its first foray into youth musicals, they couldn’t have found a better person to bring on board than the local director, writer, actor and comedian Jonathan Lim, who is known for being the creator of parody sketch series Chestnuts.

How did you come up with the idea of Pursuant?
I think it’s a story I’ve been waiting to tell, ever since I became aware of two things: that our country is really changing and the next generation needs to have a vision to inspire them; and that our youth are in danger of becoming too focussed on KPIs rather than dreams. When I was asked to write something new and local featuring the youths, I immediately leapt at the chance to send out a challenge, a call to action – this show dares the youths of Singapore to dream big and to pursue those dreams passionately.

The setting is not unlike Orwell’s 1984 – was that an important influence?
Not directly. The SingaCorp we’ve created is not terminally dystopian and certainly nowhere as bleak as Orwell’s imagined future. We are Singapore, after all. We’ll never become a grim and grimy city. We will always be slick and profitable. Too much so, perhaps. It’s very virtual, our SingaCorp. There is no wear and tear when everything is digital. It is the world beyond Google glasses and e-books, bio-tagging and QR coding. It’s inspired as much byMinority Report and Wall-E as it is by George Orwell. And it’s not truly totalitarian – the real horror is that everyone buys into the country’s master agenda, the way it is in a corporation. The pursuit of prosperity and progress has become the idée fixe. In fact, it is extremely recognisable; It’s only a decade away and we are halfway there! This is what disturbs me the most – that our darkest social fears are almost reality already.

Orwell wrote 1984 in relation to the Cold War. Is there any special relevance of showing Pursuant in Singapore at this time?
Is it post-GE11 Singapore – a country wondering where change will come from and who will lead it? Is it the Singapore Conversation – desperately trying to define (or redefine) what our country can and should mean? But events like these only serve as reminders of questions we should always have been asking ourselves but have forgotten to; and every needful reminder is a timely one.

How long did it take you to write the script?
The idea took a while to take shape – I was dreaming about it for half of 2012. But once I started seeing it in my mind and hearing the words, the scenes fell into place within a few months. In some cases, the lyrics came first and the scene took shape around it. In other scenes, the songs only made sense after the scene achieved full detail.

Why did you choose to make it a musical instead of a straight play?
Musically, the show is a hybrid – there are songs that follow the musical theatre mould and songs that draw their inspiration from operatic forms. The rest of the score also dances between classical music and contemporary film scoring. A musical is more appealing and accessible to a wider audience – and I wanted to share this with as wide an audience as possible, both young and old It’s easier to attract families to a musical than to a play, and kids will enjoy songs more than dialogue. The music and songs also give wings to many of the sentiments in the story. Not everyone will appreciate a soliloquy, but everyone loves a moving ballad.

Is Pursuant one of your more ambitious projects?
Musicals are always ambitious; it’s the nature of the beast and Pursuant is additionally challenging because of the mixed community it draws together – the theatre professionals, talented youths and the SLO children’s choir. Also, it’s an ongoing challenge to maintain the right balance between opera, musical and popular music and between commentary and parable, satire and dream. At the heart of most of my work, there is the same longing, which is to connect with the audience as frankly, truthfully and enjoyably as possible. The comedy I do is always brutally honest, however wacky it is and the stories I like to tell are very homegrown and blunt, yet inspirational and, yes, a bit sentimental. I think society needs more affection and passion and I try to let those things drive my work.

What are some of your favourite lines from the play?
The Old Man who once inspired the nation says, ‘It’s only your dream if YOU pursue it. With your heart and soul. Not with obedience.’ And one of my favourite lyrics is from a song called ‘Grandfather’s Road’: ‘Are you ready to shoulder your forefather’s load? Are you worthy to walk your grandfather’s road?’

If the audience were to take away one thing from the show, what should it be?
That dreaming is the only way to shape the future and Singapore’s future lies in our children’s dreams.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Dirty Dancing’ Preview

Nine years after its debut in West End, Dirty Dancing the stage musical arrives in Singapore for highly anticipated two-week run. Gwen Pew chats with Byrony Whitfield, who plays the role of Baby, about her preparation, favourite number and that famous lift.

'Baby' carrying a watermelon from Dirty Dancing.

‘Baby’ carrying a watermelon from Dirty Dancing.

6 May 2013: Although it started off as a low-budget film made in 1987 after the script was repeatedly rejected by various other studios, Dirty Dancing nonetheless went on to become an instant hit around the world. Partly based on the childhood of its writer Eleanor Bergstein (who, like the lead female character, also was called ‘Baby’ in her younger days), the success of the film prompted Bergstein to adapt the story into a stage musical in 2004, which then became the fastest selling show on London’s West End, where it sold out the first six months of its run even before it had opened.

We’ve seen the movie more than once, but we can expect from Dirty Dancing, the musical?
Dirty Dancing is a name that is known internationally. Wherever you go, people know the story, the characters. We are aware that people come to see all the elements they love. I believe the stage production has all the right ingredients. If you loved the movie, you will love the musical. There is also something special about the show being live. It’s an intoxicating energy and everyone responds to all the right moments. The show that we’re bringing to Singapore is the exact show that is currently touring the UK. It is such a slick show, with scene changes happening in front of your eyes and beautiful, sexy dancing.

You play Baby. How long did you have to prepare?
We had four weeks to prepare for the show. It was very intense, but I always love the rehearsal process. It’s where you get to explore your character and grow into the show.

Do you have a favourite line in the show?
My favourite line that I say is ‘I carried a watermelon’, but of course the line that gets the best audience response is ‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner’.

What’s it like doing the lift at the end of ‘Time of my Life’?
There is a great deal of pressure to master the lift sequence. We know that people have come to see that moment, and because it is live, we only have one shot to get it right. But Gareth [Bailey, who plays Johnny] and I have a wonderful trusting relationship and we work well together.

We heard you have 21 costume changes throughout the show – how do you manage that?
Team work. My show is very busy, I have a wonderful dresser who helps me with all the changes.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Jersey Boys’ Review

'Jersey Boys'. Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus.

‘Jersey Boys’. Photo courtesy of Joan Marcus.

22 Oct 2012: In New Jersey, shares guitarist Tommy DeVito at the start of the musicalJersey Boys, there were three things you could do: join the Army, get mobbed, or become a star. ‘It could happen. It did happen,’ he muses. DeVito – along with three other male members including frontman Frankie Valli – comprised the American rock band The Four Seasons. They were famous in the 1960s until another foursome – the Fab Four – came along. And much like their British counterpart, The Four Seasons’ hit songs still live on in karaoke rooms and radio stations on lazy Sundays: ‘Sherry’, ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’, ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You’ and ‘Begging’.
Jersey Boy, which won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2006, a year after it made its Broadway debut, is about the rise and fall of the band. Divided into four acts – spring, summer, fall and winter – each member gets a chance to tell the story of how they progressed from singing under streetlamps to performing on stages all over America. It also gives us a glimpse into the debts, in-fights and heartbreaks behind the glitter.
The actors in the Singapore production – an all-South African cast – managed to keep the changes in mood tightly in control, and with a little help from swiftly transformed sets, took the audience from laughter to tears with ease. They also gave the New Jersey accent a good shot, although it did start to fall a little flat towards the second act. The night we watched, a few minor technical problems disrupted the flow of the show slightly, with a wig threatening to slip off during an otherwise sexy scene, and the vocals of girl group The Angels occasionally being drowned out by the music.
That the audience ended up in a frenzy of cheers and wolf whistles is a testament not only to how moving this musical is, it also acknowledges the fantastic performance of the actors, led by Grant Almirall who plays Frankie Valli. While the characters of Valli and DeVito no doubt steal the limelight with their vocals and bravado respectively, they are brilliantly supported by Bob Gaudio (Kenneth Meyer), a whiny puritanical boy who grows up before our eyes and proves himself to be a loyal and talented songwriter, and Nick Massi (Emmanuel Castis), the self-proclaimed Ringo of the group who nonetheless delivers some hilarious lines and booming bass notes.
Filled with big hearts, big dreams and big voices, Jersey Boys fully lives up to the hype and is definitely worth a watch – and be sure to bring a good pair of shoes to dance around in!

The Muse: ‘Crazy Christmas 2012’ Review

Dancing Marilyns at 'Crazy Christmas 2012'. Photo courtesy of Dream Academy Productions.

Dancing Marilyns at ‘Crazy Christmas 2012’. Photo courtesy of Dream Academy Productions.

Back for the fifth year, Crazy Christmas is this tropical island’s way of announcing that the festive season is here once again, with the theme this time being ‘Silver Screen Meets Silver Bells’. As someone who has only been in Singapore for a few months and never witnessed the magic of the show before, however, I must admit that I was initially quite worried about the level of cheesiness that I might encounter onstage. A bunch of people paying ‘tribute’ to the greatest people, hits, and flicks of the Golden ‘30s and ‘40s? What could possible go wrong?

The answer to that, as it turns out, is that very little did go wrong. From George Chan’s fantastic umbrella-twirling rendition of ‘Singing in the Rain’ to Adrian Pang, Karen Tan, Judee Tan and Selena Tan’s hilarious Singaporean parody of ‘The Wizard of Oz’, the local-star-studded show is as delightful as any seasonal romp could be.

Other side-splitting sketches include funnyman Hossan Leong’s Charlie Chaplin impersonation, Selena Tan singing ‘Happy Birthday’ in the notorious, whispery style of Marilyn Monroe, and – for something with a bit more of an Asian feel – Judee Tan’s insistence as ‘Dr. Teo Chew Muay’ that we should not help the ang mo celebrate Christmas because frankly, there are enough ang mos celebrating it already.

While I enjoyed the individual acts much more to the times when all of them stand in a line and try to poke fun at each other, one of my favourite scenes does involve all of them coming together at the end to recreate some of the most well-known movies from the time, including Little Mermaid, Titanic, and Jaws. The actors are all perfectly in sync with each other and it’s clear that they are having the time of their lives, which is an infectious feeling that spreads to the audience too.

The skits are separated – and sometimes accompanied – by a band of pretty dancing ladies, cheekily named the ‘Merry Miss A Toes’, some of whom you may recognise from the recent Dream Academy production of Company. Apart from lots of laughs and booty-shaking, there are, of course, also plenty of carolling. The duet by Michaela Therese and Robin Goh singing Frank Loesser’s ‘What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve?’ and a medley by acapella group Vocaluptuous are great, but the biggest surprise was Karen Tan’s 16-year-old daughter, Rachel Quek, who promptly stole the show by singing ‘I Saw Mama Kissing Santa Claus’ in the most angelic voice.

Fun and light-hearted, Crazy Christmas is the ultimate way to get your holiday spirit pumped up. Tickets are going fast, however, so if you haven’t gotten yours yet then you’d better hurry!

Note that this review is based on the ‘nice’ version, played by Hossan Leong, which was showing until 2December. The ‘naughty’ version, which will be showing from 4 to 9 December, will be played by drag queen comedian extraordinaire Kumar and suitable only for people aged 18 and above.

The Muse: ‘Company’ Review

The cast of 'Company'. Photo courtesy of Dream Academy Productions.

The cast of ‘Company’. Photo courtesy of Dream Academy Productions.

Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 concept musical is an exploration of love, lust, and whether it’s better to be single or married. Due to its unconventional nature, Company will not be everybody’s cup of tea and those expecting a mainstream sing-along affair will be disappointed. The show has no linear plot, but rather examines its central themes through a series of sketches. However, famed local director Hossan Leong believes that now is good time to put on the show in Singapore as there are a lot of single people in the country who are wondering the same thing as Company’s protagonist, Bobby (Peter Ong) – ‘Should we just find a nice girl and settle down, or will we be happier with an endless string of girl/boyfriends?’

In an attempt to make the musical even more relatable, Leong has decided to move the location of the show from New York to Singapore. While this is successful on some levels – the references to hawker food in one scene got plenty of laughs, for instance – there are also times when it feels forced. When one of Bobby’s girlfriends, the Filipina Marta (Mina Ellen Kaye), says that she came to Singapore because ‘it is the heart of the universe’, it didn’t quite make sense. Yes, this Little Red Dot is great, but Singapore is no New York.

The sketches, which form the backbone of the show and portray Bobby’s interaction with five pairs of his closest friends, are meant to show us what different aspects of married life is like. Some couples are fantastic; the soon-to-be-married Paul (Tim Garner) and Amy (Petrina Kow) share a tangible chemistry as the former tries to be doting and reassuring while the latter has a nervous breakdown on their wedding day, and Sarah (Candice de Rozario) and Harry (Juanda Hassim), who are supposedly on a diet and on the wagon respectively, also make a brilliantly comical pair.

The others, however, are mostly sweet but frankly quite forgettable, as their characters were not fully developed. Tan Kheng Hua, as great an actress as she is, overplays her character Joanne, as she seems too confident to play an insecure character who is both too young for the old crowd and too old for the young crowd. The skit with David (Brendon Fernandez) and Jenny (Karen Tan) getting high with Bobby is also confusing and highly unconvincing, particularly as their animated rants and fast-paced dialogue is not a characteristic commonly associated with the effects caused by marijuana.

Ong’s interpretation of Bobby comes across as one-dimensional. There is very little character development throughout the first act especially; he is far too easy-going and laid back to be the protagonist, and his friends apparently have nothing negative to say about him, which makes him a rather unrealistic character. His character shows more depth in the second act, however, and he finishes on a strong note as he sings the well-loved classic ‘Being Alive’ with heart-felt emotion.

One of my favourite parts the show is Kow’s rendition of the notoriously difficult ‘(Not) Getting Married Today’, which she nails as she successfully brings out the vulnerability and terror of a bride-to-be without overdoing it. Another highlight is Seong Hui Xuan’s performance as Bobby’s well-endowed bimbo girlfriend April, as she manages to be dim and adorable in equal measures without coming across as annoying. I also very much enjoyed the sexily delivered ‘You Can Drive A Person Crazy’ by Seong, Ngim, and girlfriend number three Kathy(Glory Ngim).

The minimalist no-frills set, designed by Eucien Chia, screams bachelor pad, and the pull-down bed is ingenious. It achieves its purpose of providing a backdrop without overshadowing the action going on.

Does the production accomplish what it sets out to? Yes and no. It does make for a fun night out at the theatre, but I didn’t come away feeling the love it’s supposed to convey, and Bobby’s revelation that he would like to get married seems too sudden and unfounded. That said, considering how difficult a musical Company is and the fact that the cast had only spent six weeks on rehearsals, this is not too shabby a performance. Were they able to dedicate more time to understanding these very complex characters, I believe it has the potential to be a much stronger show.

The Muse: You’ve Got ‘Company’ (Interview)

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Hossan Leong (right) in the rehearsal room. Photo by Sung Lin Gun.

As Singapore prepares for the arrival of a localised rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 Tony-award winning masterpiece Company, The Muse takes a sneak peek backstage and catches up with the show’s Director Hossan Leong and Choreographer George Chan.

The concept musical is set in the home of protagonist Robert (Peter Ong) as his 10 coupled-up friends throw him a surprise 35th birthday party. A series of short sketches is then played out to explore the relationships between each couple – as well as their relationship with Robert. As Hossan Leong puts it romantically, “At the heart of it, Company is all about Love.”

Leong has chosen to transport the New York-based comedy to Singapore, although he is quick to point out that “It’s not in Singlish – the dialogue remains the same as the original – we’ve only changed the references, subway to MRT and things like that.” The reason behind this change is that he feels a lot of people in the country will be able to relate to it.

“There are lots of Singaporeans who are not married and wondering why,” Leong observes. “Even my friends – one of them called me up the other day and asked, ‘Why am I still single? Is it my looks?’ and I told him to come see the play. At first he was like ‘Aiyah you and your theatre things.’ But then he went to Google it and called me back saying, ‘That is my LIFE!’ So I think a lot of people will think the same. Why not stage it now rather than 20 years later when everybody will already be married?”

Working closely together with Leong is the 41-year-old stage veteran George Chan, who is also Director for The Hossan Leong Show. To Chan, choreographing Company proves to be an interesting project: for one thing, he admits that he has never actually watched or staged the production before; for another, he made it very clear right from the start of our little chat that, “Company is not like Chicago or Mamma Mia! where you have these big dance scenes. This is not really a dance show. It’s more about the acting and the songs. So it’s about doing just enough to tell the story.”

That said, Chan does know the score of the musical extremely well, having used the famous Being Alive as his go-to audition song numerous times in earlier days to bring out his high tenor voice.

“Usually [when I’m choreographing] I would listen to the music and see what pictures come to mind, then quickly jot it down,” says Chan. “But in this case, because I’m so familiar with the songs, I already had some ideas in my head. The rest is about the cast – how to shape them as a group, getting everybody on the same wavelength, and what they are comfortable with – and how to bring out the humour.”

Chan has previously worked with a number of the show’s 14-strong cast, including Karen Tan and Tan Kheng Hua, but most of them are trained as professional actors and singers rather than dancers.

“There are only three of them who are more technically trained, so I’ve given them a bit more to play with in the songYou Can Drive A Person Crazy,” Chan says, referring to Mina Kaye, Glory Ngim, and Seong Hui Xian, who play Robert’s girlfriends. “But it’s really fun working with everybody. Everybody’s crazy!”

He is also grateful for the suggestions that the actors have made throughout rehearsals, even for seemingly little things like how their high heels or dresses are making it difficult to do a particular movement. In order to ensure that everything comes together as naturally and seamlessly as possible, Chan tries to stay in contact with the people in charge of lighting and costumes at all times. But there are also other challenges.

“In a way, I have it really easy with Company because everything is there. When I did my last show, Lao Jiu [the musical adapted from Kuo Pao Kun’s eponymous play], it was a totally new production so I could go back to the composer and tweak it anytime, but with this one I can’t do that,” he says. “I feel like I am boxed in a little, so I have to look for other ways to interpret it creatively, mostly by playing with the pacing.”

So what should we be most looking forward to in the show?

“Definitely the songs,” Chan replies without hesitation. “I’m blown away the vocal talent every time I hear it, especially from Peter Ong when he sings Being Alive. It is just so beautiful. I’m never using it as my audition song again after hearing him sing it!”