[Review] Lea Salonga Sings With Her Heart on Her Sleeve

lea salonga concert

Lea Salonga in Concert

22 May 2015

Esplanade Concert Hall

Run: 22-23 May 2015

“It’s ok if you don’t understand a single word,” assures Salonga before a medley of Filipino songs, “we as a people wear our hearts on our sleeves.” With a programme comprising pop songs, jazz, Disney, and show tunes, there is undoubtedly a lot of heart in her renditions.

From the opening jazz number, Feelin’ Good, she makes her approach to the songs clear. Rather than taking this opportunity to pull out all the stops and belt it out in its full jazzy glory, she decides to sing it straight—no frills, just music.

She lets the effort and ingenuity of the composers, lyricists, and the arranger (who happens to be her brother, Gerard Salonga) do the talking. And she backs them up by displaying an exquisite sense of control and technique.

She moves across various registers effortlessly—her high notes are not shrill but really powerful while every word can be heard when she sings in the lower register. She sustains her long notes very well while colouring it with a gorgeous vibrato. With such skill, who needs to engage in vocal gymnastics to prove a point?

Despite her straightforward approach, she does not lack in showmanship. While the concert hall has seen grand recitals, Salonga’s candour and personality turns the sizeable space into an intimate one. Despite her fame, she is open with anecdotes from her personal life and has no qualms about teasing her brother. No shout-out from the audience is left unanswered. In fact, she encourages it and one lucky chap, Kim, got to be Aladdin for the night in A Whole New World.

One of the highlights has got to be songs from Les Misérables. Having played Eponine and Fantine, singing One My Own or I Dreamed a Dream would be a natural choice. Being a crowd-pleaser, she sings a medley of both songs. Being familiar with the songs, I thought it would be quite difficult to merge them without an abrupt break. However, that is where the brilliance of music director Gerard Salonga comes in as the transition felt natural and well chosen.

Aside from pleasing the crowd, I realise that putting both songs together should be a natural choice. Both characters are roughly about the same age when they sing their respective songs and they are about lost loves. While Fantine is utterly dejected by the end of her song, both girls still dream about having their men by their side.

It is such a beautiful coincidence that my first introduction to Salonga is through the 10th Anniversary concert DVD and now, the Salongas—both Lea and Gerard—have given me a renewed appreciation of the musical.

Despite listening to a slew of crowd favourites, what really got to me was Mr Bojangles. Salonga prefaces the song by sharing an anecdote about young Robin Williams being a mime at Central Park, New York. Days after his death, his friend who was his fellow mime then wrote a touching tribute. While I was hoping that she gave her own personal anecdote of Williams, her soulful rendition of the song really got me in knots. All I could think of was: please Mr Bojangles, just one more dance?

Clearly, Salonga’s artistry does not just lie in her singing but also in the way she plans her programme and introduces them.

The lady sitting beside me, who unfortunately decides to sing along with Salonga for a quarter of the programme, remarks that Salonga is mesmerising. While I cannot agree with her singing, I wholeheartedly concur with her opinion.

Advertisements

A Hypothetical Anthology

This semester, I took a module on Singapore English-Language Theatre. It made me realise how rich our local theatre history is and how one generation of playwrights builds on the previous generation. As part of our course assessment, we are required to put together a hypothetical anthology and write a critical introduction to said anthology. The following is an excerpt from the introduction which offers a brief analysis of all the plays to be included in the anthology based on the theme of invisibility.

If you are interested in reading the plays, click on the links to either purchase or borrow (when they are not freely available) the collections which feature the particular play.

♦♦♦

This collection starts with Elangovan’s Talaq. It is arguably the most controversial play of the collection as it was perceived to be against Islamic principles which offended the Indian Muslim community (Hamilton 1999). This resulted in the English version being banned in 2000. Talaq explores the plight of Muslim brides from India being married off to Indian Muslim husbands in Singapore. They are often ill-treated and Islamic precepts are intentionally misinterpreted as a justification for their subjugation. The use of monodrama thus empowers the wives as we only hear their perspective and anguish which is normally silenced in the public sphere. Having the wife voicing the comments made by her husband and her community gives one a vivid impression of how she is personally affected by it. Cyril Wong (2014) also notes that it evokes a sense of schizophrenia and that “[i]n a world gone insane, patriarchy is the unscalable wall that the victimised woman in the monologue rams and rails against, and predictably to no avail.” In a society that is so afraid to discuss anything pertaining to religion, Talaq boldly breaks the silence and insists we take a look at what is happening to Indian Muslim women.

Apart from its historical importance of it being used as incriminating evidence against members of Third Stage, Esperanza by Wong Souk Yee and Tay Hong Seng, presents the struggle of maids trying to earn a living in Singapore (Li 2012). It is unfortunate that, despite a rise in advocacy of their rights, some of the scenes in the play still ring true almost 30 years on. The employment of naturalism allows the playwrights to present situations that mirror the treatment of maids in some households.  This affords easy identification with the plight of the maids which is evident from the sympathetic and positive press reviews of the performance (Speeden and Sampang 1986). Yet, Esperanza is controversial in other ways. It raises the question of why there was a clamp down on this rather tame play with modest ambitions and whether the maid character is truly pitiable considering that she did certain things out of revenge. While there are no easy answers, this play should not be dismissed simply because it was mired in some political controversy.

Russell Heng’s Lest The Demons Get to Me is one of the few plays that depicts the experience of a transsexual in the face of societal pressures and expectations. While it is also a monodrama, Heng adds an additional layer by including the voices of other characters but they are only heard off-stage. This gives a sense of the public intruding on the private—familial and societal demands encroaching on the privacy of Kim Choon (KC) as she has to decide whether to capitulate and conduct her father’s funeral rites as the only son, or to secretly pay her respects as the disgraced son-turned-daughter. To make matters worse, the impending closure of Bugis Street also threatens the collective memory of her and other transsexuals. Should she hold on to the identity that she identifies with or should she conform to that which society puts on her? Unlike other plays which present issues about transsexuals within a socio-political framework as camp is used to subvert societal norms, Heng’s poignant piece is firmly grounded in a personal struggle. The title is most fitting for as a child, KC wears an earring to ward off traditional supernatural demons. But as an adult, she must decide if she wants to don her earrings to reclaim her identity and fend against demons of tradition.

While the prevalence of dementia is generally known, it is rarely talked about. Haresh Sharma’s Don’t Forget To Remember Me was commissioned by the Alzheimer’s Association of Singapore. Such a collaboration shows that organisations can tap into the potential of theatre to inform without resorting to a skit filled with clichés and awkward writing. This lyrical piece juxtaposes the reality of the dementia patient to that of the caregiver and it depicts the struggles that both face. Getting the mother and daughter to converse in different languages not only marks the generation gap but it also emphasises the difference between the two realities as both try to reach out to the other. Kenneth, the day care centre manager, delivers the medical information but without sounding as if he is reciting a medical brochure. The ability to write such a heartfelt piece while including the need of educating the audience about taking care of dementia patients is a strong testament to Sharma’s skill as a playwright. It is unfortunate that this play had a short run before touring to selected communities for it deserves more attention not only for the message, but for the writing as well.

In terms of technique, Alfian Sa’at’s Asian Boys Vol. 3: Happy Endings can be said to be the most complicated of this collection. Similar to Asian Boys Vol. 1, this play has a strong inter-textual element in which Johann S. Lee’s Peculiar Chris (1992) lies at the heart of the play. The play revolves around Joe who sets out to write a novel called Peculiar Chris. In the process of crafting his novel, his Muse and the characters in the story will question his authorial choices and the audience gets to see the storyline of the novel being enacted. Based on this simple premise which is enhanced by meta-theatrical (the actor playing Joe will play Chris) and meta-narrative (the Muse and characters asking him whether the plot should be that way) devices, Alfian Sa’at presents us with a typology of gay men and some of them will be based on stereotypes that have been perpetuated in a hetero-normative society. We are thus compelled to examine our own perceptions, especially if we are heterosexual, of the gay community. This is emphasised further by the characters discriminating among themselves or arguing over whether they should agitate for change or be content with the limited freedoms that they have. Whatever opinion one holds, Happy Endings makes you recognise that the gay community is not homogeneous and perhaps convince you to get to know the individuals better.

♦♦♦

All the plays in this anthology have received previous publication. The details are as follows:

Elangovan. “Talaq.” The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly: Three Banned Plays. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2014. 13-53. Print.

Heng, Russell. “Lest The Demons Get To Me.” Fat Virgins, Fast Cars and Asian Values. Singapore: Times International, 1993. 28-53. Print.

Sa’at, Alfian. “Asian Boys Vol. 3: Happy Endings.” Collected Plays Two: The Asian Boys Trilogy. Singapore: Ethos Books, 2010. 191-272. Print

Sharma, Haresh. “Don’t Forget To Remember Me.” Don’t Forget To Remember Me. Singapore: Necessary Stage, 2013. 124-146. Print

Wong, Souk Yee, and Tay, Hong Seng. “Esperenza.” 5 Plays from Third Stage: A Collection of  Five Singaporean Plays. Ed. Anne Lim and Suan Tze Chuan. Third Stage, 2004. 100-129. Print.

 

Works Cited

Hamilton, Andrea. “The Rights of Marriage: A One-woman Play Has Caused a Stir in       Singapore’s Little India.” Asia Week. Cable News Network, 26 Mar. 1999. Web. 12    Apr. 2015. <http://edition.cnn.com/ASIANOW/asiaweek/99/0326/feat3.html&gt;.

Lee, Johann S. Peculiar Chris. Singapore: Cannon International, 1992. Print.

Li, Lisa. “Third Stage: Theatre Company or “Marxist Network”?” Remembering 1987. 26 May 2012. Web. 12 Apr. 2015 <https://remembering1987.wordpress.com/2012/05/26/third-stage-theatre-company-or-marxist-network/&gt;

Speeden, Muriel, and Crisanta Sampang. “Play May Help Bridge A Yawning Chasm.” The Straits Times 7 June 1986. 34. Print.

Wong, Cyril. “Preface.” The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly: Three Banned Plays. Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2014. 5-9. Print.

[Review] Pagés Breathes Life into Carmen

I carmen

I, Carmen (Yo, Carmen)

María Pagés Compañía

17 October 2014

Esplanade Theatre

Run: 17-18 October 2014

 

To declare one’s identity, one may choose to stomp the ground and yell out who you are. But with wisdom and self-confidence, María Pagés chooses to gracefully present what it means to be a woman and embrace its humanity in all its manifestations.

I, Carmen is a lush blend of music, dance, poetry, and tongue-in-cheek complaints. Rather than negating all that is not, Pagés offers a positive and soulful expression of womanhood. By incorporating the  meditative potential of contemporary dance, her choreography ranges from a quiet but profound contemplation to one of strength and passion. I realised that half of her choreography consists of basic steps that any flamenco student would be familiar with. It is very easy to dismiss such steps but to execute it beautifully, as her dancers have done, is no mean feat.

Beauty in simplicity is definitely the order of the day as Pagés uses artistry as her needle to weave beauty into the quotidian. I was surprised to see a scene of all the dancers were doing housework which can be read as a re-establishment of traditional gender roles. However,  she turned it into a celebration of the everyday by taking all the rags and tying them up to form a manton (a shawl used in flamenco).

Yet, life has its moments of sadess and vulnerability too. That  is where Pagés shines the most. Ever hand movement, every crinkle in her face, and every turn is a process of digging deep and expressing the most moving of emotions. Even in stillness, as she examines herself in the mirror and donning the height of traditional Spanish fashion only to take it off again, one remains transfixed. I cannot help but notice two sides of her; the one in the flesh and the one in the mirror.

I would do this show an injustice without mentioning that it achieved something rare in dance: incorporating poems as another layer of the dance without privileging the latter. A sound recording of women reading works by female poets in the original languages was played as the dancers danced to it. Here, Pagés displays a rare sensitivity in respecting the text. The rhythms of the poem was incorporated as the driving beat of the dance and the stresses of the words replaces the palmas (hand clapping) that usually accompany the dance. Though it must be said that the surtitles are slightly  distracting.

Finally, due credit must be paid to the production elements. As a response to Bizet’s Carmen, most of the music was an adaptation of the original score to flamenco guitar. A great deal of thoughtfulness went into the arrangement as the frenzy during the climaxes of the original score is re-expressed into a sense of quiet joy. Those with a keen ear would be in for small treats as the musicians occasionally includes motifs such as the chime of a clock tower before the housewives scene to represent the passing of time.

While Pagés’ costume designs seemed simple enough with bold lines running across a skin coloured dress, the wonderful injection of light often creates the illusion of the dancers wearing different costumes. In one number, the reddish-brown wash from the side booms mixed with the bold lines on the dress gave me the impression that the dancers were wearing a different dress with two colour blocks. I was pleasantly surprised that they were wearing the same dress as the lights changed for the next number. Clearly, artistry does not begin and end with the dancing in this production.

It is worth noting that María Pagés started her career with Antonio Gades who, in his time, created the flamenco version of Carmen that is still based strongly on Bizet’s opera and all the loaded implications that come with it. With I, Carmen, Spain can truly say that she has reclaimed Carmen for herself.

Brava Maria, Brava.

Revamp

Initially, I created this blog as a portfolio of all the writing that I have done and to note down some reflections on my writing experience. However, I realised that it has been dormant for quite a while as I have not had the chance to really sit down and write a poem or a story. After much consideration, the only way to keep this blog alive is to expand its scope.

Incidentally, while discussing possible career paths with my theatre professor, he mentioned that I should take my interest in the arts beyond reviewing plays—I should start an arts blog. I should invest myself in the arts scene by reflecting on what is happening as well as to comment on it. Hopefully, this will facilitate a livelier discussion about the arts.

This post thus marks the beginning of my maiden attempt at being a somewhat active arts blogger.  I will also take this opportunity to explore other areas of the arts that I am interested in as well.  To start things off, I shall transfer a review of Yo, Carmen by María Pagés Compañía from my personal blog to this one.

If you have any thoughts in response to my reviews or the content of this blog, please leave a comment. If you have more to say, feel free to email me at isaactan90@gmail.com. I will feature it as a guest post and will  respond to it in the following post. This will allow everyone to keep track of the debate and weigh in with their thoughts.

Lastly, please share this blog with anyone that is interested in the arts as it will go a long way to sustain this endeavour.