[Theatre Review] Emily the Musical — 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

[Theatre Review] Dark Room Sheds (More) Light on Prison Life

Photo: Crispian Chan

Photo: Crispian Chan

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.

Dark Room
Edith Podesta
28 April 2016
Esplanade Theatre Studio
28 April–1 May 2016

Two years ago, I was profoundly affected and had my pre-conceptions about ex-prisoners challenged by Dark Room x8.

The memory of its impact makes me apprehensive about watching this iteration. What should one expect of this second staging? More importantly, having been made aware of my prejudices, will Dark Room still have an impact?

I am happy to report that most of my impressions of the first iteration apply to this one as well.

In the midst of my apprehension, I forgot a simple truth. Regardless of what one knows, there is a sort of power in having someone stand in front of you and tell you a story. And the stories told in Dark Room—that of the prison system, and how it affects the individuals—need to be retold again and again.

While there are some changes in the main ensemble (Nelson Chia, Timothy Nga, Erwin Shah Ismail, Ian Tan, Mohd Fared Jainal, Noor Effendy Ibrahim, Oliver Chong, and Pavan J Singh), the performances by this batch of actors are equally stellar. The complexities of script are deftly handled as the show organically shifts from poignancy, to hilarity, to the downright painful.

Chris Chua’s set, which consists of three structures that can be cleverly configured into the prison cells and walls, is a much welcomed addition. It vividly impresses on the audience the small space that the prisoners inhabit, and its possible psychological impact.

That said, this fuller rendering also has its excesses.

Director and writer Edith Podesta took on the audiences’ earlier feedback by introducing the perspectives of a female inmate (Shafiqhah Efandi) and the parents (Lim Kay Siu and Neo Swee Lin) of the prisoners. However, they are tokenistic at best.

Apart from learning two new facts,—female inmates man the call centre, and yard time is not a regular occurrence—the female inmate does not add anything to the show. Podesta also does the character an injustice by not giving her an identifiable personality which is present in the male characters.

Similarly, the parents’ perspective only focuses on their sadness, and the difficulties of visiting their child in prison. All these are not really new insights and could be easily imagined by the audience.

Additionally, certain sound effects by Darren Ng—such as the banging of the judge’s gravel— are too literal and gimmicky. This takes away the gravity of the text which can be competently conveyed by the actors.

Finally, the ending which has the characters repeatedly imploring the audience not to judge too quickly risks being overbearingly didactic.

Despite all that, the beauty of Dark Room is that the issues raised in the piece will always be pertinent. This gives Podesta countless opportunities to re-stage it, and find the right balance for the show.  What remains is for her to trust her artistic instinct and be very selective of which suggestions to bring on board.

Resources on Dark Room

Dark Room in residence @ Basement Workshop, Centre 42

Other Reviews

“Edith Podesta and The Studios’ Dark Room is an immersive and intimate retelling of life in Changi Prison Complex” by Karin Lai, Today

“Prison Tales Retold” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

“Struggling with the Outside from the Inside” by Alisa Maya Ravindran, Centre 42 Citizens’ Review

“Chained and Connected” by Beverly Yuen, Centre 42 Citizens’ Review

“Dark Room by Edith Podesta at The Studios” by Corrie Tan

“Architecture of Empathy” by Dumbriyani