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Corporate Animals


Corporate Animals

Reviewed by Stephen Chen Shengfang

Music and Lyrics: Ken Low
Book: Desmond Sim
Director: Ekachai Uekrongtham
Choreographer: Mohd Noor Saman
Date: 1995

Action Theatre has jumped into the musical theater foray with their production of Corporate Animals. This much hyped about production is perhaps one of the few local musicals to generate such strong interest, due to its identifiable plot.

The rationale of staging it in Jubilee Hall is open to question. Jubilee Hall is thoroughly inappropriate for staging a musical due to its limited sound and lighting facilities. In addition, it has no backstage and has very limited wing space. This in turn directly translates onto the production, thus producing lackluster sets and functional lighting and sound. What you get therefore is bad lighting which always leaves most of the cast in shadow and even the main characters out of focus and extremely hollow sound. To date, the only theater suitable for musical theater would be Victoria Theatre due to its good seat elevation, sufficient stage depth and has managed to combine size with intimacy unlike the relatively cavernous Kallang Theatre.

Corporate Animals is very badly structured. The scenes don't flow well and the blackouts at the end of each only serves to heighten the disjointedness. Music wise, the score was pop/rock flavored and was quite catchy though not exactly great work. The static structure was also ballad heavy and the characters spend most of their time standing still soliloquizing away (one wonders how they manage to get any work done). It seems that from the looks of recent attempts, Singapore musical theater is still in the 30's Vaudeville style. Apparently no one thought of cutting redundant material that doesn't serve the show. After merciless cutting, most shows could comfortably fit within a half hour slot instead of padding what has been stated. That is the main flaw of local shows, too much padding and redundant material.

It opens with an insensible and inaudible prologue which surprisingly got applause. Something along the lines of "It's a jungle in here" and lots of lurching about which passed for graceful movement.

The story begins on David's "First Day" in tantrum games. Although the conception of this number had potential, it never managed to achieve that due to the actor's terrible diction and singing which was largely inaudible. It was well staged and the blocking was good (the last two mentioned became virtually nonexistent as the show progressed). Part of the problem lies in the uninspiring set (very utilitarian, like the toilet bowl) and terrible lighting which lit everything to the same color and intensity and thus the focus of the various characters whom the hero is introduced to is lost. It is quite sad as it is actually one of the better numbers in the show. The only excitement was seeing Cara Chan appearing and giving new definition to "bad hair day" with her perm gone awry.

We then know that there are 4 Assistant Vice-Presidents in the company and David is working for one of them, Veronica (the viper). Veronica tells David that there are two kinds of people, so she tells him he must be a "Leader or Ladder" and thus begins a number that is terribly repetitious and overlong. The only thing to commend about it is the use of dance to show David's integration into the jungle as he eventually mimics the movements of the dancers and becomes one of them.

Cara Chan as Helen sang flat in the duet with her boss. The only thing remarkable (if any) about her voice is her basso profundo tone.

Chee Soo Lian as Olivia, the Assistant Vice-President who got fired stood out as the best singer due largely in part to her clear enunciation which enabled us to hear the words. Unlike most of the cast, her singing has more resonance and is less uneven in projection. Most of them have never heard of Mezza Voce

June, David's girlfriend is given a charming I-Remember ballad in "Simple Days". The lyric was reasonably strong but it was overlong. One does not have to remember every single detail. Just the ones that are the most meaningful. Cross reference "Martha" from Kiss of the Spider Woman.

The second act (Thank God!) didn't begin with an Entr'acte. It opened with a number detailing the "Room at the Top" where the Assistant Vice-Presidents sing of their desire to be sitting there. This number stands out because the four singers do nothing but stand (Get it?). In the middle, perhaps feeling there needs to be movement, the singers move away and back to their original positions. VERY inspiring number. This number also came too late in the show, making their (supposed) fight for Vice President unconvincing. What is so wonderful about the position that they want it? How strongly do they want it? All these questions are left unanswered as this song just glosses over them, creating a severe book problem by making the basic premise of fighting for Vice President unbelievable.

Lurching and pseudo-arty gestures took centre-stage again in "Jungle In Here". This is obviously one of the most redundant song in the entire show. It was too static for the pulsating rhythm of the music and it paints a supposedly bleak picture of the Jungle. However, it is let down by the book because what we have seen so far is not exactly a jungle, more like a zoo. This would make a good Greek-chorusy number IF the book was more compact and darker in conception.

Gani acquited himself in the Second Act where he finally gets a chance to strut his stuff. He is undoubtedly one of the better male performers in the theater scene today even if he seemed more at home with rock numbers. Hossan also showed promise as a comedian in the Charlie Chaplinish underdog mold. Deborah Png also acted well but like most of the other performers, tended to become hammy at parts.

There are some things to commend about Corporate Animals as it was able to get a few good laughs with its broad and caricatures which was played without exaggeration such as the affinity between secretaries and food. Humor tended to be contrived (such as the Games Specialists making their entrance with Street Fighter gestures) but some are quite genuine with delectable Singaporean flavor such as the canny use of Singlish in parts of the dialogue and conversations revolving around food.

The staging grew flat as characters tended to stand in situ most of the time, yakking their hearts out or moping about in song. They have an idea that standing with backs to each other with face bowed is highly dramatic and the epitome of anguished emotion is an uplifted head with a screwed-up face. The backstabbing is limited to the strange habit of giving the other smirking looks. Choreography tends to look like a glorified chorus line and only in the secretary number and perhaps "Leader Or Ladder" was it effective. It looked like Janet Jackson's backup dancers with lots of lurching and quasi arty-farty hand gestures. It is definitely no Agnes De Mille and contrary to what they say, dance is not a part that was integrated into the show (among a host of other things).

Corporate Animals also tried to develop a genuine emotional story out of unrewarding material and this hastens its demise. For example, if one gets fired, one doesn't spew your heart out with a ballad and blame yourself that you "Didn't Play It Right". It tries very hard to extract an emotional core which led to an unfocused plot and characters. Is it satire or heartwarming? One asks. Prime examples are Veronica and her daughter (unseen); David and June.

I don't believe that it should be titled Corporate Animals. The theme is not dominant. The animals are tame and uninspiring due to the lack of focus. It was more of a visit to a zoo than surviving in a jungle. The potential of the subject matter is not realized. Instead of trying to squeeze blood from a stone (or critic), they should have explored the ramifications of the jungle in the workplace with a darker and deeper book.

The first act seemed to be getting on something as it details David's climb to become one of the Assistant Vice-Presidents. However, the second act pushes the moral and the two backstabbers (David and Veronica we never see the others backstab, thus diluting the plot) are given moral values. Villainess Veronica has tender maternal feelings for her daughter, she REALLY cares. Add that to her undying loyalty to the company and you have a character straight out of a moral education textbook. David reconciles with June after much weeping on both sides and decides not to be part of the jungle any more (there wasn't one in the first place). All this whitening of character is enough to make you gag. Must all characters be moral? Must all characters be appealing? Have you ever heard of Brecht? Have you ever heard of subtext? One should ask the book writers. All this whitening is a waste of time and the characters emerge two-dimensional, flat and spartan like the sets.

The ballad heavy structure of Corporate Animals made me more irritated at the tendency of local musical theater to belt at the footlights. That style is dead for over a century; the move left, move right, move down, raise both arms and hit high note; since the time of Nellie Melba. Especially when the late Maria Callas showed that in musical theater, acting must come in as well as singing.

I disagree with Koh Boon Pin (a Straits Times critic). The singing was not good and the sound was far from clean. If Tasman Smith (the guest vocal coach specially hired for the production) was to return, it will be a terrible time for Singapore theater as performers will only know how to project pearly tones and not act with their voices - maybe I'm biased but I attended one of his talks and his knowledge of musical theater is pathetic - all this from someone who calls himself an expert in the field. Just compare our best talent with those overseas such as Sally Mayes and Lynne Winterstella or even a chorus girl grabbed from the gutters and you'll see the wide gulf between them. The difference between doing it on stage and the making the audience believe in it. The difference between thinking you have it and having it.

Theater singing is not just beautiful voices. Late 20th century musical theater is verismatic as befits its taut dramatic structure. A show such as Once On This Island achieves in one hour a total theatrical experience and an entire catharsis of emotion which is more than all of local musicals combined. The rest of the theater world is way ahead while local theater trudges along. Did I mention that I had the privilege to hear two beautiful people knowledgeably about theater while waiting for the show to start? Pity they were discussing Phantom T-shirts. During the intermission, they gushed with critical comments that "the songs are nice".

I strongly object to his (Koh Boon Pin's) statement that "the test of any musical is to see how memorable the songs are". Merit is not based on just this criterion or "simple plot, infectious tunes, snazzy choreography", nor longevity for that matter. It is a tedious process born from observation and comparison with past works and only so we can learn. It is not just its content but its implementation and overall significance in musical theater. Singaporeans are not willing to accept musical theater as an art form in its own right and that is a shame because for all its conventions and shortcomings, a well-written work properly produced and performed can exceed the dramatic tension of any single play, ballet or song.

But are they to blame if all the hype with the big mega-musicals make them think that is what musical theater is about? There are many wonderful works both old and new which deserve to be seen and heard.

To wrap it up, Corporate Animals was another of those shows which failed to make the passing grade and it serves as a reminder of how far we still have to go.

Verdict : So - so.