[Theatre Review] An Epic That Needs A Little Focus, And A Bigger Stage

The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey
Glowtape Productions
18 July 2017
Drama Centre Theatre
14 – 30 July 2017

The six-year birthing process of The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey—which depicts the folk tale of Meng Jiang Nü’s journey to the Great Wall after her husband, Fan Qi Liang, has been conscripted for its construction— is a refreshingly long, but arduous one. But unlike an actual baby, any kink can be rectified, and a rebirth can be arranged.

Despite careful preparation by producer Grace Low and her creative team, it is unfortunate that Low’s brainchild has slightly weak bones. Jean Tay’s book is torn between allowing Meng to drive the action or to use the tale as a platform to show the power of stories which outlast any empire.

The latter strategy is seen in Fan being a scholar, who defiantly carves classic poems into the wall in opposition to Qin Shi Huang’s efforts to rewrite history and his legacy, and various characters stating when and how they met Meng as a device to move the story along. While either strategy has great potential, alternating between both makes the show schizophrenic.

Furthermore, certain dramatic moments are not given the time and space to breathe. The two main ones are the blossoming romance between Meng Jiang Nü (Na-Young Jeon) and Fan Qi Liang (Nathan Hartono) (accomplished in the span of half a song), and Fan’s arrest. Despite decent performances from the couple, we are hardly invested in them as one wonders why Meng even bothered to make the odyssey in the first place (a decision made in record time).  

Aaron Khek’s and Ix Wong’s inspired choreography draws from the movement dynamics of Taiji and concepts in Chinese philosophy. The fluid quality of the movement sequences have an ephemeral quality that is apt for the spirits tormenting Qin Shi Huang, and the various people that Meng meets. However, the performers appear to be hemmed in by the lack of space in bigger scenes.

Similarly, while the various design elements and scene transitions are thoughtful, and successfully overcome various limitations, this show is screaming for more space. The lack of grandeur, especially when it comes to the wall, is a little jarring. That said, do watch out for how the dead is entombed within the walls as it is exquisitely haunting.  

Despite having slightly weak bones and being a little petite, it will be remiss of me not to report that it is still a healthy child with much potential.

The brightest lights of the show are undoubtedly George Chan as Qin Shi Huang and Na-Young Jeon as Meng Jiang Nü.

Chan benefited from having been part of the process since 2012, as he offers a wonderful and humane portrayal of a tyrant struggling with his inner demons, while being utterly determined to hold on to power. Such a take on the first emperor of a united China is rare, and I would love for a musical on Qin Shi Huang to be written with Chan in that role.

Jeon impresses on various fronts, as she has to tackle the emotional demands of the show; the physical challenges in depicting Meng travelling over various terrains; and David Shrubsole’s demanding score which requires her to hit both extremes of her vocal register. In Jeon’s Meng, we see a refined and demure lady that is led by love and devotion that has a Medean intensity. Yet, despite being in the throes of utter sorrow, she still has the wits about her to ensure that her husband has his dignity restored to him.

Shrubsole’s music is possibly the only element that gives the show the grandeur it deserves. From identifiable conventions (lyrical ballads or percussive Chinese music) to the slightly experimental, it is clear that he composes according to the emotional beat of the story. His lyrics can be quite poetic, but the nuances are sometimes lost in a flurry of harmonies and stage action.

While the show has considerable weaknesses, the boldness of the undertaking must be acknowledged. As long as the creative team adopts Meng’s derring-do in deciding how the story must be told, and aided by more resources, The Great Wall has the potential to scale greater heights.    

Other Reviews

“Promising journey” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“Houston, we have a problem” by Christian W. Huber, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“The Great Wall Musical: Audio review with commentary from Adrian Pang and Tabitha Nauser” by Norman Tan, Tabitha Nauser, and Adrian Pang, Büro 24/7 Singapore

“Review: The Great Wall by Glowtape Productions + Ticket Giveaway!”  by Bak Chor Mee Boy

“The Great Wall Musical: A Moving Tale” by Our Parenting World

“{Media Invite} The Great Wall: One Woman’s Journey|A Night of Stunning Vocals” by Audrey, SAys! Happy Mums

“The Great Wall Musical—A Review” by Vicky Chong, Vicky’s Writings

[Theatre Review] Jacques Brel Revisited

13041455_10154183496559275_8269308797582857315_o

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

“Simplicity is Bliss” by Jeremiah Choy, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

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