A Bit of Bitters With Your Music?
Richard Lord has fun at a pair of smaller scale musicals
By Richard Lord
As the New York Times critic A.O. Scott recently noted, these days on Broadway "many big musicals represent the lowest common denominator: theme park attractions for tourists."
Here in Singapore, that theme-park kind of show, usually an import, lands up in the Esplanade, the Lion City's impressive new arts complex. Smaller scale musicals that aim to being more than a sprawl of sugary treats are now the domain of local companies whose intended audience consists of more than cultural tourists. Two of the shows that brightened up the last quarter of 2005, by the Stage Club and W!ld Rice, are good examples of these shows.
In its choice of materials, the Stage Club, Singapore's leading amateur theatre company, likes to swing the theatrical pendulum. In the previous quarter, they put together a solid production with a grand total of three actors delivering three monologues. In mid-November, the Club assayed the esteemed anti-war musical revue Oh! What A Lovely War, which generally requires a score of actors to carry it off. (In their rendition, the Stage Club made do with a mere 19 singer-dancer-actors - along with a five-piece band.)
The 'lovely' conflict this show recaptures and sends up (in song, dance and sketch) is the First World War, originally dubbed the 'Great War'. Variously touted as "the war to make the world for democracy" and "the war to end all wars", by mid-century it was clear this conflict actually did little more than make the world safe for the first wave of the century's totalitarian regimes and set the groundwork for an even more devastating war some 20 years later. Beyond these two facts, it was a conflict whose very nature lent itself exceedingly well to biting satire. A lot of this satire appeared, of course, in the poetry written during WWI or in the period just after. (In many cases, by poet-soldiers who died in the conflict.)
Oh, What A Lovely War! (or OWALW to acronym lovers) itself first appeared in 1964, the product of a collaborative script devised by the members of the Theatre Workshop in east London. The Theatre Workshop was a much-lauded group, co-founded and run by Joan Littlewood, which favoured overtly political works or pieces reflecting the lives of the working-class community the theatre was set in. A grass-roots Marxist and populist theatre-maker, Littlewood was also a devotee of the theatre styles of Bertolt Brecht. (In fact, she produced and directed the first UK production of Mother Courage and Her Children, one of Brecht's three best works, if not the best of them all.)
For Lovely War, Littlewood liberally borrowed some of the theatrical devices of Brecht, as well as the form of the Pierrot show, a popular entertainment in British theatre akin to Music Hall revues. Like both of its antecedents, Lovely War exuberantly employs songs and short scenes to tell its story in engaging fashion.
That story is the absurdity of the First World War and, by extension, of all war. (This was a 1960's work, remember, and a quite popular one at that.) Many of the leading characters in the revue were grafted from the real history of the time, such as British Generals French and Haig, French Field Marshall Charles Lazerac, Germany's von Moltke and the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. Lovely War also uses a number of popular tunes of the period, but after the first song of the evening ("Row, Row, Row"), which recalls the bucolic pre-war days, the treacle has been drained from the lyrics and new words added (or at least a new tone given to the old lyrics) to forge a blunt edge for the rest of the numbers.
Yes, there have been far better artistic treatments of World War I, in film, books and theatre. This work is a revue, after all, and Littlewood liked to adhere to Brecht's dictum that the primary job of theatre is to entertain. Lovely War's first aim is to entertain, though it teaches some sad lessons along the way.
What Lovely War captures particularly well in its overall tone is what was once some typical British attitudes to bad situations: the stiff-upper-lip approach. This pose infuses many of the scenes, especially those with the officer class (who had more chances to use the stiff upper lip as they usually were not the ones getting mauled). For the lower ranks stuck in the trenches or mounting a desperate assault, the attitude shown is that of muddling through - even when what you are muddling through is blood-soaked mud. This prevailing tone makes it even more effective when bottled-up anger and frustrations sporadically come flowing forth in a sketch or song.
Even more than battleground scenes, this evergreen looks at what was happening in the wings of the conflict. The Officer's Ball scene back in Britain, for instance, points up the snobbery within the top officer's ranks. This was one rather good example, but not the only one, where the original Theatre Workshop script slashed the myth of wartime camaraderie trumping the British class system: the class system, Lovely War tells us, was unassailable and its petty jealousies undoubtedly led to more war losses than were necessary.
While some of the historical references or social norms of WWI may have grown shop-worn or been lost entirely on a contemporary audience, the sting of the work's satire remains. The follies of war, and mind-boggling follies of certain wars, are similar no matter what the conflict and speak to generations born long after the conflict being scrutinized. (A few, not entirely veiled, references to the ongoing war in Iraq made this point clear for any who might have otherwise missed it.)
The Stage Club not only managed to get this old workhorse onto the track, it gave it a good run on the generous stage of the NUS Cultural Centre. I admit I entered the theatre wondering if the Club could find the talent to fill Lovely War's many parts. (Especially since some of their other large-cast shows have come out very mixed in performance levels.) This time, however, they came very close to full success, and provided us with an evening both entertaining and informative.
The show was directed, in a clean, sprightly manner, by Phil McConnell. McConnell admirably carried out OWALW's main assignment for a director: to keep the individual pieces moving along in a brisk manner and to blend the fluff of the musical's form with the vitriol of the show's message.
The cast helped him here nicely. While there were a few weak spots, they were greatly outnumbered by the strengths demonstrated by just about every member of the ensemble.
The choreography in the grand ensemble pieces which employed most of the cast was one of the few places where the weaknesses were apparent: it could have been tighter, better coordinated. (The choreography, by the way, was handled by Maureen McConnell and Jane Jackson, but the flaws of the dance scenes may have reflected the dancers' limitations more than the choreographers'.)
The sketches came off better, at any rate, than the dance items. For instance, the bayonet practice session scene was handled well, with all five actors strong, though it would have been even better had the drill sergeant played the part even more manic (as it was often done). This is the sort of sketch where subtlety is not a virtue.
The meeting of the French and British generals - wherein we get the first inklings of the internecine friction between Generals French and Haig - was also conducted nicely. The Belgian general's uniform in this scene was clownish. Following from the show's anti-war stance, 'Brave Little Belgium' (a World War I battle-cry) was handled as more of a sad joke than an inspiration for fighting. Daniel Toyne, by the way was good as Haig, but not as strong as he might have been.
An even more successful scene involved a religious service held near the front. A sardonic parody of "Onward, Christian Soldiers" was one of the high notes here, along with the sang-froid demeanour of the actors here. Peter Lugg mentioned in the programme notes for an earlier production that he had played the role of priest a number of times. All that experience paid high dividends here, as Lugg was convincing and chillingly funny in this Holy Week chapel scene.
Francois Cornu was again admirable in this Lovely War. Cornu, himself French, handled the roles of both Belgian and French in a charming, winning way. Nathalie Ribette was also quite good on the Francophone front, especially in her saucy cabaret routine.
Elena Scherer, who weighed in as the weak centre in the Stage Club's recent Twelfth Night, proved herself much better in the supporting roles she handled here. It seems Scherer's acting abilities are best fit to swell a progress or two and she did that commendably in OWALW.
Some of the actors served up rather mixed quality in their different roles. For instance, Patrick McConnell proved good in the bayonet practice scene, where his trainee, second only to the drillmaster in importance, was a delight of sheepish incompetence. However, in other scenes he looked inappropriately sheepish, almost like he was still groping for his role. (This McConnell, the youngest member of the cast, is still a teenager, however.)
Paul Hannon, who was one of the strongest elements of this troupe's Twelfth Night, was not quite as stellar here. Hannon assumed the role of the show's emcee, who appears sporadically throughout the evening to guide us through the next stage of action or theme. As is true of many actors, Hannon seemed uncomfortable in a role which invited him to generate a kind of alter ego; he was better in scenes where he could take on a fully new persona. He was at his strongest when singing an angry song, and also good as when stepping in as one of the field soldiers on the way to becoming cannon fodder.
Other standouts were Emilie-Ann Oehlers, and OWALW is very much an ensemble work and the ensemble as a whole deserves praise for their work here. As does the five-man band that at times produced a sound even bigger, richer than that of a quintet.
Director McConnell used projections and posters throughout the evening to set background, to lend context or establish atmosphere. The show ended with a projection slide of a field of red poppies, just after the ensemble had sung the closing title song. The irony of the song was still ringing as the field of poppies popped up. The quiet irony of the poppies (with its triple symbology) proved a lovely way to end this still entertaining and relevant commentary on a war that was anything but lovely - except for the armaments firms that reaped amazing profits from it. (Statistics and anecdotes on this important aspect of the conflict were also sprinkled throughout the show.)
Not long after the Stage Club's Lovely War, another musical satire graced the National Library's Drama Centre. Oi! Sleeping Beauty was W!ld Rice's holiday gift to local audiences, a lovely confectionary with a nice bit of gristle and marrow running through it.
Oi! Sleeping Beauty continued Rice's budding tradition of putting up a Christmas season pantomime, based on the venerable British tradition of panto. But W!ld Rice put its own Singaporean stamp on this form, maintaining many but not all of the conventions associated with this genre. For instance, the male lead in Beauty was played by a bona fide male, not a female. And while we were treated to not just one, but three males in full drag (as the 'good fairies'), the central female foil was assigned to a woman. Plus, the context was overwhelmingly Southeast Asian.
A party atmosphere certainly prevailed over there at the Drama Centre. In fact, as patrons arrived, they were handed a goodie bag of party favours (horns, streamers, etc.), then invited to use them in fitting ways throughout the show.
This year's pantomime was written by multi-talented Jonathan Lim and directed by Ivan Heng (himself pretty much a multi-talent). The final result strongly indicates that this production was a collaboration in the finest sense of the word. Lim produced a pleasant, wry script, while Heng and cast brought that script to life with a pack of frisky value-addeds. (That would be a fair description of the first act at any rate.)
Indeed, Heng reached deep into his bag of directorial tricks to put his own signature clearly on this show, even reprising elements such as the Men In Black motif used in The Visit of the Tai Tai. (In this show, the MiB duo were bodyguards for a character akin to the Tai Tai of the earlier show, sans any of the Tai Tai's graces.)
The show opened with an Indonesian wayang kulit, or shadow puppet show, which laid out the background to the main story: an ultra-sensitive, A-list fairy is inadvertently excluded from the celebration of the birth of a royal daughter. This unintended slight sows the seeds of a nasty revenge.
The stage is then turned over to a pack of human actors who take up the story from there. However, the first human player we see is decked out as a feline, looking like he had just wandered off from some touring company of CATS. (The role was played - exceptionally well, I might add - by Gene Sha Rudyn.)
The setting is now a multiracial Southeast Asian sultanate every bit as bucolic as the pre-war Britain the songs of that period conjured up. But… As the story briskly unfolds, we discover that the witch-fairy who was not invited to the birth celebrations has decided to exact her revenge on the child herself: On the Princess' 16th birthday, the young royal will prick her finger on a batik and fall into a deep sleep that will last 100 years.
Her father the Sultan, not being well-versed in Greek tragedy, thinks he can avert this fate by banishing all batiks from his sultanate. Batiks are duly outlawed, but sure enough, one appears at the Princess' Sweet Sixteen party (courtesy of the bad fairy) and it's "Good night and good luck". (Her loving and faithful cat is then put into a century-long induced slumber so the young lady will have some confidant around when she eventually gets to waking up again.)
The place she wakes up to is a skewed version of modern-day Singapore. This twenty-first-century Lion City (which occupies the whole of Act Two) is limned by three large hanging panels of the Esplanade, the aforementioned new cultural landmark. This place is called Singacorp, as in the short form of Singapore Incorporated. (Though I also caught an echo of Singa-corpse in that name; was it intended? It certainly fit the zombie-strewn landscape that Lim envisioned.)
This brave neutered world is run by a female CEO whose veins seem to be filled with ethyl chloride instead of blood. Any resemblance between this harridan and any Singapore leader living or dead, male or female, is, I am sure, entirely coincidental, as are all other uncomplimentary references.
In the play's first half, Lim strikes mainly light chords, serving up a fluffy comedy with a string of in-jokes. To wit: early on, one character advises the audience of the upcoming "free speech for the next few hours, so enjoy it while you can". Other in-jokes included a comment on the aesthetic shortcomings of the Merlion, Singapore's number one icon, and a playful dig at Haw Par Villa. (If you have never lived in Singapore, you would never get these last two jokes.) There was also a sneaky little jest about Singapore's law on illegal assembly. (Five or more individuals gathered for protest or such without a hard-to-obtain permit is illegal here in the Lion City.)
There was also a stack of jokes for adults only here, such as the repeated plays on the word 'fairy'. (Remember that three of the fairies were played by men.) For instance, one of the honoured guests at the big celebration explains her eye for fashionable design thus, "I'm a fairy; I notice these things." And later, another guest reminds her companion, "My dear - a true fairy never comes alone."
However, Lim's humour did not shine with unfailing lustre, even in his stronger first act. For instance, the ruling sultan of Act One is overly given to malapropisms, but most of those malapropisms are just not that funny - if funny at all. For instance, "We're waiting for the grapes of honour" instead of guests of honour.
However, the staging of the piece was praiseworthy throughout, especially in that first act. In fact, the strongest aspects of this Sleeping Beauty were its production values. Some moments were particularly impressive, such as the pageant of eminent guests arriving for the birth celebrations. This included one Asian potentate arriving on an elephant - and that simulated elephant looked good enough to ride.
The choreography (by Erich Edralin) was first-rate and brought an extra liveliness to all the scenes that used dance. The dance for the Princess' 16th birthday bash was a highpoint of the first act. Here, Edralin's choreography was enhanced by the exhilarating swirl of colours in the costumes and banners, a mix of earth tones and more vibrant hues, such as red.
The quality of the songs (music by Bang Wenfu with lyrics by playwright Lim) ran from serviceable to rather pleasant. I do not think any of the numbers here are destined to become Singapore classics, but they fit this show nicely.
Except for some of the lame jokes, the first act of Sleeping Beauty was well-crafted, a nice flow of sweetness and light, with the only darkness being of the fairy tale variety. The second act is where the satirist in Jonathan Lim clocked in with the serious business - humorously handled, of course. Like so many savvy satirists, Lim has created a world similar to one we know, exaggerated just enough to make us sit up and see the obvious that we have been missing because it is so obvious. And that world is Singacorp, Lim's take on contemporary Singapore.
The CEO of this Singacorp boasts that she gave the citizens of this city a 'Vision for Tomorrow'. No doubt; but the Tomorrow we see is an altogether chilling place.
The real Singapore of today is a place where social autism is rather advanced. But in Lim's Singacorp, social autism is not merely advanced, it is triumphant. The denizens of this city-state-corporation march about in a soulless landscape where people seem unable to interact. Mobile phones slapped to their ears, eyes focused into some void a short distance before them, these Singacorpeans strive to disconnect as much as possible.
(Some of the satire was to be found not just in the script but also in the staging and set design. Example: all the boxes and crates in Little India - an Indian enclave which is both a tourist Mecca and a vibrant Indian community - bear the label "Made in China".)
It is to this clean and polished, but emotionally desolated landscape that our spirited Princess comes back to consciousness. Just gushing with pent-up spirit, she immediately realises how empty the lives of all its citizens are and sets out to correct this. In this task she is assisted not only by her trusty cat, Kuchinta, but also by a new found-ally, one Prince bin Charming. The Prince, following the original fairy-tale script, first brings Beauty out of her long sleep with a kiss, then joins her in a crusade to help Singacorpeans regain their lost emotional cores. Of course, they succeed overwhelmingly and everyone starts connecting once again. (This is, after all, still a fairy tale.) At the end, everyone sings and dances and lives more happily ever after.
Although Act Two of Sleeping Beauty was more promising than the first half (at least for those of us who savour satire), it was not as successful. There is clearly a lot about contemporary society, even Singapore society, that demands to be satirized, attacked even. The problem is that Jonathan Lim in Sleeping Beauty tries to concoct an incisive satire and keep the whole thing light at the same time. This was a panto, after all, set to appeal to kids as well as adults. (The adult-children ratio of the audience evidently shifted depending on whether it was a weekend afternoon performance or a weekday evening show.) As a consequence, the material that Lim had aimed his scalpel at proved too heavy for his treatment of it.
Moreover, Lim's diagnostics are limp; disappointingly so coming from so clever and incisive a writer-performer as Lim. In his programme notes, the author says he 'wanted to remind fellow Singaporeans of a better time in our history." Fair enough; but the history he seems to invoke is at least as much a product of his imagination as the Singacorp of Tomorrow become today. More, that social autism so prevalent in present-day Singapore is mainly the city-state's response to modernisation. The remedy would require more than asking people to slow down, smell the roses and remember a more congenial past which has now been buried under concrete, steel and quarterly reports.
When the show was just having fun, it worked; even the bad jokes (such as the Sultan's gaffes) became forgivable. When it was working to have fun and also make a serious point, the charm got lost and the message conveyed was not compelling enough to make up for this loss.
There was probably some message of its own in the fact that Pam Oei as the Princess was not as strong in Act II as she was in Act I. In that first half, Oei's comic gifts were suitably displayed and she put together a winning character whether as baby, as spoiled little rich girl, or as 16-year-old. But as crusader for the soul of her city, Oei was too strident and not always credible either. Neither was Hatta Said quite as strong as Prince bin Charming as one might have expected in this central role
The rest of the cast was strong all the way across; if there was a weak link, it was Said in the male lead - and he was really not that weak.
Christina Sergeant served up a juicy double turn as the evil witch and the self-important CEO. In her appearance as the latter, Sergeant looked like a cross between Margaret Thatcher at her most officious, Glenn Close in her two Disney Dalmatian films, and the Wicked Witch of the East backed by a high-concept fashion consultant.
We have already given Gene Sha Rudyn his deserved praise as Kuchinta the cat. As the other remaining members of the royal family, Selena Tan (the Sultan) and Karen Tan (the Sultana, raisin eyebrows all over the place) likewise did fine service and proved the breath of their talents by shining in the second half as well - as Singacorp's two behaviour police, Marie and France.
Praise also belongs to the Kids and Teens Ensemble (with 15 members) which filled out the crowd scenes with polish and aplomb.
But we cannot close out this critique without giving a hearty nod of praise to the three actors whose performance drew the most laughs and the most applause of the evening: Chua Enlai, Gani A. Kaim and Helmi Fita as the three good fairies. This trio played their parts with just the right measure of camp and comedy, making their admittedly secondary roles some of the most memorable in this mostly delectable holiday treat.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 2 Jan 2006