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Conceptualize, Materialize, Spiritualize
Reviewed by Arthur Kok

Music: Mark Chan
Book and Lyrics: Ovidia Yu
Cast: Jacintha Abishegenaden, Gani Abdul Karim, Pamela Oei
Date: 30 Jul 1999
Venue: Victoria Theatre
Rating: *** (out of five stars)

Shame, rumors and ill-repute stick to the Loong mansion like a persistent curry stain. Some things simply cannot be washed away. Under this mythic veil, it seems impossible to see the family within. On its gala opening night, Haunted peeled off the screens obscuring "the house on the hill/ The family that's still caught in a past it never lets go". The stranger is Charles, purportedly Old Man Loong's long lost grandson, now back to claim his place in the family. But stranger still is Lilian, the patriarch's once extramarital lover, to-date a ghost for close to 20 years. As their uninvited presence begins to impinge on the Loong family, it becomes clear that some (things) will not stay buried.

Between a shifting mist, the opening titles fix and dissolve midair. Onstage, ghostly words and faces fade in and out in seeming empty space. An imposing facade of the Loong mansion suddenly materializes, and vanishes as fast as it appeared. Lights. The house's split-level interior is now thrown open for scrutiny: rosewood furniture, British colonial accents and architecture indicate Chinese upper class, built circa early 1900s. Haunted's stunning production values stem from a brilliant design team -- headed by set designer Salvador Bernal and digital image designer Chan Man Loon -- who made what was on stage both materially and incorporeally stimulating. This opening alone outstrips all other local musicals that come to mind.

But so we remember that it is a musical, a lone figure appears singing the title song "Haunted". Whether snappy pop, rock or lush melodies, composer and lyricist Mark Chan has crafted many memorable tunes: the title song stuck the minute it was sung, "Halo Round the Moon" was a campy number a la James Bond, and the motif "If" wrapped itself tightly around the cerebral hemispheres.

As Lilian, Jacintha Abishegenaden roused everyone with her elemental "I Wake". Just her, all in white, vocals soaring -- doors slamming madly, lamps in a crazy swing and the house purple and green -- she alone was the center on which the rest took their meaning. A close second was "One Two, Three Four", a winsome duet by Rafiq (Gani Abdul Karim) and Rachel (Pamela Oei). Initially, the latter drew laughter because of her Filipino accent, but thankfully Chan pens such honesty to these two lovers, that in the light of the family's infighting, they more than win over the audience.

Other songs were less winning, however. While "Rich Girl, Bitch Girl" was lyrically energized, some songs were mired with trite allusions to "lucky star" or some such variant. Part of the frustration comes from the music drowning out the vocals, or else the non-unified singing reduced comprehensibility. Of course, it could simply be distance -- I was stashed away at the hyper-steep circle. This killed any attempts to make out facial or gestural nuances. At other times, the scenes were either too static or slowly paced.

In a sense, Haunted majored on what is 'minor'. Effects, set and lighting were superb, but this made the vocal delivery inadequate in comparison. Likewise, the marginal couple drew away the bulk of our sympathy such that none was left for the Loong family. Because the juicy themes of love, betrayal and truth versus convention were to be worked out via the Loong family, any reduction in audience engagement is tragic.

[This article first appeared in The Flying Inkpot.]