April 26, 2015

SSO Pops: John Williams Extravaganza - Esplanade Concert Hall, 24 April 2015

This was my first SSO Pops concert, and the result was so spectacular that I sorely regret not attending its previous performances ( partly because I wasn't aware of its existence initially, then conflict with my work schedule last year ).

FYI, I've been a HUGE John Williams fan since I saw Superman, Star Wars and Raiders Of The Lost Ark during my early childhood. I am completely obsessed with movies, but their soundtracks add an entirely different dimension to the experience, and Williams is undoubtedly the finest film composer of our time.

I admit to feeling apprehensive as the lights dimmed and conductor Jason Lai cued the orchestra for the opening numbers from Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, as I didn't know what to expect. But the second I heard the first few notes, a big smile spread across my face, and I remained like this for the next 2 hours.

Aside from Star Wars episode I, the repertoire also included pieces from episode IV ( The Imperial March gave me chills! ), Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Memoirs of a Geisha, Born on the Fourth of July, Angela's Ashes, Catch Me If You Can and Jurassic Park.

The set list ran the gamut from well-known and much loved classics to more obscure tunes, but thanks to Williams' incomparable musical virtuosity and the orchestra's graceful interpretation - under Lai's confident leadership, of course - every melody was absolutely breath-taking and, except for a couple of shaky notes towards the last 15 minutes of the show, otherwise flawlessly executed.

Most people assume that film scores are easy to play, but Williams has a distinctive style which presents a multitude of challenges, ranging from impossibly high notes to complex rhythms. I've heard his renowned themes mangled by other ensembles, but heartily congratulate the SSO Pops for doing his work great justice.

Jason Lai was a wonderful host - warm and hospitable to the audience ( "A full house!" he happily announced ), effusively sharing anecdotes during the intro for each piece, repeatedly declaring his excitement about the upcoming release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
( I have the film's poster art as my handphone wallpaper, so I know exactly how he feels! )
Speaking with a crisp British accent, he regaled us with fascinating tales, peppering them with his own humorous personal observations. One which really tickled my funny bone was his description of the score for the Jurassic Park theme and how the notes on the page mirrored a dinosaur's long neck. ( The written word doesn't convey the joke well at all; his physical reenactment - plus humming - was hilarious. :))

The playful lighting effects did not escape my attention and enhanced the atmosphere significantly, especially during The Imperial March, when 2 spots of light - 1 red, 1 green - raced around the stage, representing the lightsabre duel.

For the encore, we were treated to a rousing rendition of The Flying Theme from E.T. - a dazzling conclusion to a magical evening. The audience cheered non-stop and begged for more, but alas, our wish wasn't fulfilled.

I am truly impressed with Lai and the SSO Pops! I've been craving a local ensemble like this for so long, and couldn't be more pleased with what I heard and saw. I looked through its previous repertoires and hope Lai will consider the following for future concerts:

Musicals - Rodgers & Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Leonard Bernstein, Frederick Loewe

Music from Disney, Pixar and Dreamworks animated films

Tributes to other great film composers - John Powell ( How To Train Your Dragon! ), Danny Elfman, Hans Zimmer, John Barry, Alexandre Desplat, Dario Marianelli, Howard Shore.

Popular classics

I fully intend to attend every single SSO Pops show that features mainstream music if I can, and bring along my cousin's 2 teenage daughters as well. I completed Grade 8 in classical piano but have never been able to appreciate heavy duty compositions ( even Mozart, Chopin and Tchaikovsky wrote their fair share of obscure pieces ), and I'm sure many others feel the same way. The SSO Pops provides a healthy alternative which will connect with a much larger audience and whet their appetite for orchestral performances.

No news about their next show yet. I will keep an eye out for the announcement and let you know. :)

April 20, 2015

December Rains 雨季 by Toy Factory

Written by renowned local songwriter Liang Wern Fook (梁文福)  with an epic score and unforgettable songs co-written by Liang and composer-singer Jimmy Ye (叶良俊), this latest rendition is helmed by Chief Artistic Director Goh Boon Teck (吴文徳) who presents an all-new cast comprising dynamic talents the likes of Andie Chen (陈邦鋆), Chriz Tong (汤薇恩) and Sugie Phua(潘嗣敬).

Presented in Mandarin, December Rains 雨季 is an elegiac love story that unfolds in the turbulent 1950s, when anti-colonial sentiments and Maoist fervour among Chinese school students are running high. Two students from vastly-different backgrounds; Chen Li Qing and Zhou Ying Xiong, fall in love. Their relationship is beset by many challenges, including social unrest at the time and parental objection.  At a pivotal moment, Li Qing’s good friend and admirer Zhang Ming Li holds on to a letter entrusted to him from her, to pass to Ying Xiong. This undelivered message leads to the inevitable separation of Li Qing and Ying Xiong, and subsequently brings sorrow, regret and pain to all three characters.

Like the metaphor of rain which falls relentlessly on the pair of star-crossed lovers and Ming Li, December Rains 雨季continues into the 1980s, when their paths cross once again and they come face to face with unresolved issues. Will the rain ever let up or stop?

Disney on Classic ~ A Magical Night

National Theatre Live - an Esplanade Presents programme

30 APR 2015 - 2 MAY 2015
Don't miss these screenings of acclaimed theatre productions at the Esplanade Theatre!

Following last year's sold-out season of National Theatre Live screenings, Esplanade presents an exciting new line-up of four wildly acclaimed productions, at the Esplanade Theatre.

An extraordinary journey awaits you – traverse the fields of rural Devon to the trenches of First World War France in National Theatre's runaway hit, War Horse.

The fastest-selling production in the Young Vic's history, Tennessee Williams' timeless masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire receives a ferocious makeover by iconoclastic director Benedict Andrews, and an all-star cast featuring Gillian Anderson (X-Files), Ben Foster and Vanessa Kirby.

In King Lear, Academy Award® winner Sam Mendes directs Simon Russell Beale as King Lear in this highly anticipated production of Shakespeare's tragedy.

Catch Golden Globe® winner and Academy Award® nominee James Franco and Tony Award® nominee
Chris O’Dowd in John Steinbeck’s heartwrenching portrait of the American spirit, Of Mice And Men.

About National Theatre Live
National Theatre Live is the National Theatre's groundbreaking project to broadcast the best of British theatre live from the London stage to cinemas across the UK and around the world. Since June 2009, they have broadcast more than 20 productions live from the National Theatre stage, experienced by over 3.5 million people in more than 1,100 venues around the world.

Singapura: The Musical by The 4th Wall Theatre Co. Pte Ltd

April 12, 2015

Public Enemy by W!ld Rice

Director Glen Goei,  Written by Henrik Ibsen, In a new version by David Harrower

[Quick Review]

The show was stunning. The premise of the script is hardly new (granted its over a century old), but the way it was written put forth a compelling case which kept me awake throughout the 2 hours of showtime. The most impressive aspect? Ivan Heng hands down. I could not possibly imagine he was the same guy who played the flamboyant Zaza in La Cage Aux Folles. In Public Enemy, Ivan Heng was a diminished doctor who stood up against overwhelming oppression to fight for what he stood for. A stark contrast from Zaza, but no less convincing. He was convincing at the beginning, basking in the joy of his discovery, then it transited into his triumph against his brother, before everything ultimately came to bite him back. I particularly liked how the character drew strength from within himself (during the lecture scene) and delivered his soliloquy impeccably. (The ending, I thought, somewhat er.. plain though). In fact, all other actors on stage (including the other veterans I am afraid) paled in comparison against Ivan Heng tonight.

The set and sound designers deserve some credit. They have set the mood of the show very well. Particularly the sound design. It created this palpable sense of tension in the theatre during the persecution and I must say that helped very much with the show.

It was a good show and a good showcase of theatre. But did I particularly like it? Not quite, and I explain why below.

Justwatchlah score: 3.5/5
Ivan Heng deserves a 5.1 really.


Something interesting struck a chord with me though. While the play is a satire of how the "big brother" oppresses freedom of the outlying minorities by manipulating facts/misleading the public, the play itself is as not innocent as it seems. To me, it was a cleverly crafted piece of work to induce the audience to feel a sense of unjust for the outspoken minority in community today (who are oppressed by the government).

The writer chose to use character stereotypes to sell his intent. The protagonist was a doctor - and subconsciously gave audience the "trustworthy, dependable, intelligent" feel. The antagonist in this case was a politician which brought along its usual descriptive adjectives. Along the way, throw in more bad guys like journalists, head of commerce, big factory/corporation owners - character stereotypes which we often associate words like unscrupulous, people who don't mind sacrificing the little people if the ends justify the means etc. On the other hand, on the doctor's side, we have the loving wife and three innocent, pure adorable children. To conceal this fact (or to soften the association), the writer gave the bad guys human-links to the good guy. The politician was the brother, factory owner was father, journalist was good friend. Their relationship with the doctor made it easier for the audience to hate the bad guys (and pitied the doctor) when they turned their back on the doctor. With the character set up like that, the doctor was bound to win our sympathy vote, almost regardless of what he did. (Even the programme booklet was well done on this aspect, the strategic placing of Galileo as the "prototype" of public enemy was an attempt to pander to the reader's sympathy towards the "public enemies".)

Maybe because of my own occupation, I am more skeptical of doctors. Let's say.. what if the doctor really was wrong? Or he manipulated with the results to serve his intent? You'd say, it couldn't be. He's got a nice family, sees patients, good children. But the politician must be the bad one, who would oppress the doctor just to safeguard his own interests. Why? Because he is a politician. You see how the playwright has cleverly crafted that?

In the play, the playwright also used chose his conflict very well. He used an objective scientific-theme conflict: water quality. The doctor was clearly correct (cos it was supported by facts) and not listening to the doctor had a clear, obviously detrimental to health/life outcome. Once again, he made the politician so detestable because he is stopping the doctor. Had it been about political views (which was what the satire was primarily about I'd guess), then the distinction of right/wrong would become blur.

I am not saying that the playwright is cunning and is trying to mislead the audience. In fact, I actually thought it was an intelligent move. It would be wrong to assume that everyone is altruistic and only speaks the truth (that's what the play wanted to tell us anyway). Every piece of work (speech, play, musical) has a message from the creator. I am merely outlining how clever I thought the playwright used the characters to strengthen his message across.

When I first got into theatre almost 15 years ago, it was brave and fashionable to "speak up against the government". Often, it was easy to milk this resonance with the audience - I mean, who doesn't have minor grudges against the government and when said out loud in the form of a play, it often generates applause. However, in the recent 5 years, there has been an inundation of anti-govt theme shows and I'm sure I've said this before, perhaps anti-govt is no longer the in thing. Maybe to dare to stand up in the arts community and make a pro-govt statement would be the next brave thing (but of course I don't mean it in the Jack Neo kind of way - that's blatant and distasteful).

I couldn't stop my intrusive subconscious from comparing this play with Amos Yee. Hence, I quote a line from the play. It went something along the line of "the minority is smarter than majority, but yet has to listen to the majority". It implied that the people who were "correct" had to conform to the majority. But I raise a counter statement: just like there is a minority of smart people, there too exist a minority #@$#$@% (i can't think of a good adjective) people. I think freedom of speech does not preclude human common sense. There is a time and occasion for everything, its called courtesy.

April 7, 2015

Beauty And The Beast, Marina Bay Sands Mastercard Theatre, 2 April 2015

Apologies about the brief review, but I just want to get the word out as quickly as possible because the show runs for only another 4 weeks.

This international tour production really exceeded my expectations and delighted me and my 2 companions for 2.5 hours. And considering the fact that our ages range from below 20 to over 70, it illustrates the musical's wide appeal across generations.

My main reason for catching the show was the promise of lavish sets bursting with bright colours, and I was definitely not disappointed! Disney musicals are famous for their faithful reproductions of their animated counterparts, so prepare yourself for a visual feast!

The cast is absolutely wonderful. During the bubbly opening number, Belle, when lead actress Hilary Maiberger burst into song and her beautiful voice rang through the theatre, my heart melted. She sounds exactly like Paige O'Hara who sang in the movie! Darick Pead, who plays the Beast, also has strong tenor vocals ( the Beast has more solos in the stage version ), but steals the show through his flair for comedy. While the cartoon had a running time of only 90 minutes, the musical crosses the 2-hour mark, allowing more character development and interaction. We've always known the Beast was spoiled and temperamental, but wait till you see him have a real hissy fit. It's hilarious! And needless to say, the chemistry between the 2 leads is effortless, considering they're a couple in real life. Undoubtedly a crucial ingredient in this production's success.

Another cast member who deserves special mention is Hassan Nazari-Robati, who plays Lumiere. The amorous candlestick with the exaggerated French accent is my favourite from the film, but outshines almost everyone on stage. Despite being human-sized ( unlike the animated version which was the height of an actual candlestick ), the portrayal remains totally believable, thanks to the ingeniously designed candles attached to Lumiere's arms, which can be illuminated with great flourish, accentuating lines and adding oomph to jokes and double entendres.

And of course, look out for the many spectacular group song-and-dance numbers, the highlight being Be Our Guest. I can't quite express my thoughts about this particular segment so I'll just use one word which sums it up succinctly: AWESOME!

Please do yourself a favour and see this show while you still can. I guarantee you won't regret it!