[Theatre Review] Jacques Brel Revisited

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n.b. I would like to inform my readers that I am currently a project-based intern with Checkpoint Theatre for their upcoming production, The Last Bull: A Life in Flamenco. However, I strongly believe that this does not affect the integrity of my critique. Views expressed are my own.

Jacques Brel is Alive and Well & Living in Paris

Sing’Theatre

28 May 2016, 4pm

SOTA Drama Theatre

26 May—4 June 2016

In the programme notes, director George Chan thanked his team “for being so brave to stage a show that is not necessarily commercially viable.” This anticipates the question: “Why would I want to watch some European thing which is just a series of songs?”

On the surface, the show seems quite foreign. But what exactly is Jacques Brel is Alive and Well & Living in Paris? It is a revue of songs by a Belgian singer which were written mostly in French, and translated into English by Americans. The songs touch on life, love, war, peace, death, age, class among many others.

In short, it is a little of everything brilliantly performed by a group of actors who are not afraid of putting their individual stamp on Brel’s classic songs.

In Frances Lee, we have sassiness coupled with a devilishly good voice which culminates in Funeral Tango. As her persona sardonically observes how people behave at her funeral, she makes the song her own by choosing to adopt a Singaporean accent to mock her “friends.” This zinger of a song is completed with her cast mates decked in sunglasses, while enacting a pantomime of lavish sympathy.

Stephanie Van Driesen provides a beautiful counterpoint to Lee by taking on songs that require a demure persona. From Timid Freida to the heart-wrenching Ne Me Quitte Pas, one relishes every single second she is on stage. The clarity of her voice and depth of expression attest to her virtuosity as a performer.

Not to be outdone, the men are keen to showcase their range and versatility. Apart from being impressed by Matt Jasper’s vocals, notice his range as he transits from being crass in Middle Class, to being earnest in Song for Old Lovers, to being camp in Next. My favourite performance of his has to be his gritty rendition of Amsterdam.

The same goes for George Chan as he delights the audience by being “cute in a stupid ass way” in Jackie as his persona prances around with youthful vigour while aspiring to be famous. His soulful rendition of Marieke goes in an opposite direction as his persona reflects on lost love. His choice of paring it down—as compared to having this intoxicating drive which is present in Brel’s performance—makes the song heartfelt and painful. In this vein, music director Joel Nah must be congratulated for his gorgeous arrangements of the music.

Speaking of choices, Chan must also be praised for his directorial choice of including Genevieve Peck’s projections as a subtle way to impress upon the audience the relevance of Brel’s message. He also exercised some poetic licence by replacing the places of conflicts in the last line of The Bulls to current ones; a sobering reminder of the slaughter that is still happening.

Together, the quartet showcases its range by keenly executing comical sequences—choreographed by Chan—in Madeleine as Jasper pines for her, while taking us for a dizzying ride in Carousel, before closing the show with a rousing anthem of peace, If We Only Have Love. This stellar cast works so well together that one hopes they will reunite to do something on a much larger scale.

That said, the latter half of the ignorant question posed at the beginning of this review contains a kernel of truth. While having a continuous performance of 28 songs—without any plot or explanation— is meant to showcase the poetry of Brel’s music, the constant barrage of song, choreography, and hard-hitting messages can be overwhelming. This results in having some of the numbers pass by in a blur. Unfortunately, this is out of Sing’Theatre’s control. We can only look at the original creators of the show (Mort Schuman and Eric Blau), and wag our fingers.

As the cast took their curtain call, I thought to myself, “If only the title of the revue were true.” If only Brel were still around to witness his legacy and how it sparked such a great deal of creativity that is evident in Sing’Theatre’s latest success.

Other Reviews

“Jacques Brel is Alive and Well & Living in Paris – SingTheatre – Review” by Jennifer, Angloinfo

“Review: Sing’Theatre’s Jacques Brel is Alive and Well & Living in Paris” by Steven, The Mad Scene

[Theatre Review] Imaginative Retelling of the Zodiac Race

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n.b. I would like to inform my readers that I am currently a project-based intern with Checkpoint Theatre for their upcoming production, The Last Bull: A Life in Flamenco. However, I strongly believe that this does not affect the integrity of my critique. Views expressed are my own.

Ready! Set! Zo!

I Theatre Creative Edge

28 May 2016, 10am

The Substation

25–29 May 2016

It is unavoidable. When Chinese New Year comes around, many adults will develop a voracious reading habit. They will consume every single word on information panels placed outside shopping malls, which inform them whether the coming year will be kind to those who are born in a particular year of a particular animal.

If only they bothered to read the folk tale of how the zodiac cycle came to be to their children which, judging from Creative Edge’s imaginative re-telling, has the potential to be entertaining.

Playwright and lyricist Dwayne Lau expands on the folk tale by giving the animals distinct personalities, and showed why the animals finish the race in the order that they did. His script is structured based on the snake acting as a commentator of the race. The plot is not only engaging, but the adults will be entertained by his clever puns, and references to white rabbit sweets, and how the fortune cat came to be.

However, in the course of giving life to his characters, he inadvertently faces problems when it comes to delivering the right message. Rat is scheming, manipulative, and devilishly intelligent—which is why she came in first. Yet, she is not punished and gets to retain her position. In order to circumvent the problem of sending the wrong message to children, Lau has a line saying that the positions do not matter as they each animal has a year to itself, and the years go in cycles. But the fact that Rat still came in first in a race, and that still says something. Additionally, she may have apologised towards the end of the show, but it appears that it was out of fear of Tiger rather than earnestly admitting her mistake.

In terms of the performance, director Alecia Kim Chua is keen to showcase the main aspects that the young actors of the Creative Edge programme go through. The physical work of embodying the various animals, mask work, and shadow puppetry expose children to various modes of story-telling, and they complement each other in the context of the show.

Unfortunately, most of the actors are not consistent in the way they embody the animals as the identity of some of the animals are not clear when they first appear on stage.  Also, they sometimes forget that the face of their characters is the mask that they put on their heads, and not their actual faces. There are several occasions when they portray their characters through their own facial expressions rather than moving the mask in such a way that brings the character to life. The only exception is Abby Lai as the Rat.

Despite the raw performances, Ready! Set! Zo! is an entertaining piece of children’s theatre. With some minor tweaks and more emphasis on physical theatre, it has the potential to be part of I Theatre’s repertoire which can be restaged, especially in the midst of Chinese New Year celebrations.

[Theatre Review] Dollar Store Emily

Emily The Musical

n.b. I would like to inform my readers that I am currently a project-based intern with Checkpoint Theatre for their upcoming production, The Last Bull: A Life in Flamenco. However, I strongly believe that this does not affect the integrity of my critique. Views expressed are my own.

Emily the Musical

Musical Theatre Ltd

21 May 2016, 3pm

SOTA Studio Theatre

20–22 May 2016

Being an iconic play, Emily of Emerald Hill has gone through many guises. The titular character, Mrs Emily Gan, has poured her heart out to thousands of people in theatres big and small. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the next progression would be a musical adaptation of the play.

Taking on the task of writing the book and lyrics, Stella Kon reworks her original play into more of a retrospective. Emily’s grandson, Bin Seong (Mark Nicodemus Tan), visits her on his break from studying in Vancouver. He brings his girlfriend, Mei Choon (Jasmine Blundell), along who asks Emily about her past to learn more about the family. Throughout the course of the show, Emily recounts various moments of her life.

Despite it being a monodrama, the story of Emily starting out as a young wife in an arranged marriage, and gaining the worldly-wise to manoeuvre the ins and outs of household politics contains endless possibilities for a musical. Unfortunately, Musical Theatre Ltd seems preoccupied with the form of a musical, rather than the content.

Kon ruins the show with her stilted and banal dialogue. The lines seem to be mere fillers before another character bursts out into song. Most of the characters lack clear motivation to do anything. To get to the scene in which Emily talks about her eldest son, Richard, who—spoilers ahead!—eventually commits suicide, Mei Choon asks Bin Seong if he knows anything about his uncle. He replies no and suddenly says “let’s go” so that both characters can exit the scene.

While we see a slightly different side of Emily in different moments of her life, the lack of plot details and build-up paints a schizophrenic rather than a complex image of her.

As for the music, Desmond Moey’s songs are pleasant, but very forgettable. Additionally, there are too many songs and it feels as if they are there to fulfil some quota of songs so that the show can be considered a musical. The only stand-out song is Manis-Manis (sweet-sweet) as the melody is reminiscent of songs from the 1950s, and not some generic ballad.

While it is understandable that the musical has to be staged in a black box due to budget constraints, director Sonny Lim does the show a further injustice with his relatively static blocking. The actors seem hemmed in by the space, and Emerald Hill—which is described as a “rambling mansion”—feels like a matchbox apartment.

That said, set designer Chris Chua must be praised for making do with the space by creating three tiers of tiled flooring against a triptych, which forms the walls of the mansion. The uppermost tier is the main entrance, the middle represents the main hall, while the last tier becomes the other quarters in the mansion or the street outside.

In the programme notes, director Sonny Lim insists that Emily the Musical is not Emily of Emerald Hill set to music. He is right.

Emily the Musical is a dollar store adaptation of the original.

Other Reviews 

“Theatre review: Emily The Musical presents a diminished matriarch” by Boon Chan, The Straits Times Life!

“Emily Goes Broadway” by Jocelyn Chng, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“Emily the Musical” by Jorah Yu, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews