[Theatre Review] Well-Pitched Souvenir

Souvenir brings out the tender friendship between Florence Foster Jenkins and Cosmé McMoon.

Souvenir
Sing’theatre
25 September 2018
KC Arts Centre—Home of the SRT
19–29 September 2018

Leigh McDonald’s singing is a torturous mixture of a rusty kettle whistling; frogs being forced to croak as they are placed on a hot pan; and a screeching banshee on speed.

But no one is complaining because she is playing self-styled opera star, Florence Foster Jenkins in Sing’theatre’s latest production, Souvenir.

In this two-hander written by Stephen Temperley and directed by Samantha Scott-Blackhall, there is less focus on Jenkins’s infamous croaking, but more on the friendship between Jenkins and her piano accompanist, Cosmé McMoon (Hossan Leong).

McMoon recounts his time with her—from the first meeting all the way till her death shortly after her concert at the Carnegie Hall, which was packed to the rafters.  He also struggles with how best to deal with her; does he tell her the truth or prevent her blissful bubble from bursting?

What starts out as an expedient relationship—McMoon falling behind on his rent—soon develops into a bosom friendship.

Appearances can certainly be deceiving. Despite the simple set and staging (piano, chair, tables, three layers of satin curtains, light change to differentiate the scene and McMoon’s internal monologue), the whole show can easily crumble if the friendship between the two characters are not established gradually but surely.

I am happy to report that by the end of the show, we are cheering for Jenkins and McMoon. This is not out of derisive amusement, but of genuine affection.

McDonald, while clearly having fun on stage, is careful not to portray Jenkins as some crazy old bat. She has a balance of child-like innocence with a sort of confidence that is not merely delusional, but it also comes from her wealth and status.

This proves to be an irresistible mix as we see her swaying to her own recording with her palms facing outwards at shoulder level at one moment, while at another, she assures McMoon that she is going to secure his future.

But where McDonald really shows her acting chops is when Jenkins is hurt on two occasions—when McMoon flares up at her, and when she realises the audience is laughing at her. It is interesting to see how she and Leong navigate the gamut of emotions and negotiates a reconciliation for both characters.

Speaking of Leong, despite struggling to maintain his accent, he is a joy to watch. His constant reactions to Jenkins are pitched perfectly. From the widening of the eyes to gasping for air, or his legs buckling a little on encountering her delusions of grandeur, Leong is a brilliant counterpoint to McDonald. Apart from sending the audience roaring with laughter, the subtle changes of his reactions over time also allows one to see the blossoming of an endearing relationship.

That said, it must be noted that McDonald gets too carried away with being out of tune, especially during the scene of the Carnegie Hall concert. Based on the actual recordings, those unfamiliar with the song can roughly make out the original tune. However, McDonald’s renditions comprise a cacophony of sounds.

Yet, Sing’theatre has undeniably given us a souvenir that is not only entertaining and comforting, but it also sends us out with our hearts singing.

Other Reviews

“Souvenir by Sing’theatre: Play about off-key singer hits right notes” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life! 

“Review: Souvenir by Sing’theatre” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

Advertisements

[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

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