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Mortal Sins


Mortal Sins
Reviewed by Stephen Chen Shengfang

Music and Lyrics: Dick Lee
Book: Michael Chiang
Director: Ong Keng Seng
Choreographer: Najip Ali
Year: 1996
Venue: Kallang Theatre

To sum up an evening watching Mortal Sins, one can say Dick Lee is no William Finn; Ong Keng Sen is no Trevor Nunn; Najip Ali is no Michael Bennett and Michael Chiang is no James Lapine though they try very hard to be. Mortal Sins marks a milestone in self-congratulatory theater. Never was a production so lovingly reviewed; never was a program so self-laudatory; never was the public more deceived by the mortal din surrounding the musical. It is also the musical with the worst logo design with "exciting" nubs and blobs mapped with photos of the two leading ladies (those who dabble in 3D-rendering will know what I am talking about).

Mortal Sins belongs to the breed of high-concept musicals, the likes of Big Bang! and Corporate Animals. It starts off with very ambitious goals in mind but like its predecessors fail to build up sufficient clearance to achieve it. The theme of Sins, as propounded in various parts of the program is about the Dreams, Longing, State of Subconscious, in addition to its relevance to politics and censorship. Sounds like a concept musical? Don't be deceived! Despite its high brow ideals and abstract set, Sins is as traditional as me jeering at Singapore musicals. (Am I hard to please or what?)

Contrary to Koh Boon Pin's review; dancing, singing and acting are far from integrated and "fused into a seamless mix of storytelling". Just because people in black leather with an unhealthy dose of mascara looking like rejects from Rocky Horror Show lurch about in every scene does not mean dance has become integrated in the show. Neither is anything for that matter. Michael Chiang may be an excellent playwright but he sure does not know how to write for musical theater. Sins has many long talky bits without any musical crossovers so you get long scenes with a long song at the end. There is no rhythmic contrast in the scenes and little effort has been made to ease the transition from speech to song. Thus the book and the score exist as discrete parts which is further heightened by the irrelevant array of televisions whose main purpose is to add to the cost of the set.

On the plus side, Dick Lee's music shows maturity and his songs tend to strike closer to character. There are a couple of nice tunes too but like most of his music, I've forgotten which. Michael Chiang writes some pretty good dialogue with a penchant for using cliched vulgar laughter which is a staple for Chinese screen villains, and Najip Ali has a clear and focused if somewhat misguided choreographic vision. Ong Keng Sen has some interesting staging when the characters are not standing in situ and belting in front of the footlights and he seems more comfortable with the talky bits.

Lighting and sound were excellent though the former was rather uneven. At times, it just lit the stage with scant regard to appropriateness and mood. The lighting tended to be subdued, perhaps that is what Koh Boon Pin meant by "at times it is exceedingly dark" in his review. Sins is commendable for its good admixture of scene changes; from blackouts to cross fades though it sometimes becomes rather vague and indecisive which passed for artistry I presume.

Jacintha was a surprise. She has grown as a performer and her singing was rather expressive, though she still has a long way to go before achieving the caliber of Bernadette Peters and Sally Mayes. Wendy Kweh as the striptease queen came across as a teenybopper in bikini rather than the sultry and worldly older woman in a young woman's body as befits it. She seems to think she is an Ethel Merman and belts her numbers in an ugly manner; this inappropriateness for her lyric voice left its toll later on as she can only muster some wisp of a sound in the later part of the show. If she keeps this up, she is bound to kill her voice and as for her striptease act, I can mount my washing machine with more passion and fervor than Wendy Kweh's pelvic grind.

Sins opens in a prologue with characters of Time Past and Time Present and the rejects singing "Time" which serves no purpose dramatically except for a nice tune to sell a single. It is just an updated morality play like Yoko Ono's New York Rock and having to resort to using characters like Time Past and Time Present shows little creativity on the author's part for choosing to use the blatant. The prologue heralded the lurching and arty-farty gestures which people mistake for artistic achievement that will prevail throughout the show. I have no idea what the chorus is doing carrying umbrellas as they are not used in a proper dance context and are supposed to heighten the sense of Time. I suppose all the promenading and umbrellaing does show the passage of Time in some perverse way. Wonder if they know about Donna McKechnie in Company's "Tick Tock"? Now that's a dance to show the passage of Time. Throughout the show, there will be people doing movements to simulate the passage of Time, trying to use the "mirroring" technique created by Michael Bennet in Follies but its sameness throughout meant it loses its impact after the first two scenes.

We are introduced to Jacqueline, the Chief censor played by Jacintha, skip a sizeable chunk of yakking and we are in Eden nightclub in the 60s where striptease queen Rosy is performing. There is no feeling of sleaze and decadance , rather Najip Ali has chosen to have male chorus members lying in various stages of orgiastic frenzy on the floor, simulating sex with the air , the floor , whatever. while Rosy does crotch grabs. Am I mistaken or is this straight out of one of Madonna's dubious dances. And this is just one of the misguided choreography which thinks it is artistic but comes across shallow and in bad taste.

Censor and Stripteaser meet and befriend the other and suddenly , out of no dramatic motivation , the chorus launches into "The Nineties" singing about the 90s and its freedom in values etc. Talk about clumsy scene change. Jacintha appears out of nowhere and sings how dubious it is while the chorus go into simulated mounting and she sings "Cut , Cut , Cut" and you see scissors snipping on the TV screens. Decide for yourself whether it is relevant or just campy.

Rosy and Jacky meet again and Jacky becomes drunk and insults Rosy's striptease vocation and thus launches another high-concept song about "Dreams" , as typical of the subject matter , there is nothing that is not covered before. Rosy performs her striptease in defiance and you get the sexually-deprived men again. At the conclusion of the striptease , Jacky does one of her own , to break away from her repressed self. When she is left in her frilly lingerie , the chorus suddenly strips to reveal taut-muscled men in G-strings and tight-breasted women in thongs revealing Thighs of Doom doing some bizarre gestures in time with the closing chords while Jacintha faints. This is perhaps the best scene dramatically and musically I have seen in local Musical Theatre but the director and choreographer "staged the shit out of it" (something I picked up from Jerry Saks) so it never achieves its potential for cathartic release. The finale before intermission is a letdown where you get Jacky , Rosy , Time Past and Present singing about "Wishes" in front of the footlights.

The show picks up pace after the intermission with their own interpretation of a critically-acclaimed dance troupe which reduced me to fits of giggles looking at the silly people in silly leotards wearing silly wigs and silly make-up acting silly. Though it WAS meant to be artistic. Lots of monologues about dreams which is of little interest. Anyway , Jacky tries to rescue Rosy from being sold to a Malaysian business man as his mistress over 3 scenes while Ong Keng Sen had a ball doing "avant-garde" staging. Rosy gets acid splashed on her face by the Mama San when she follows Jacky's advice to follow her dreams to look further than jiggling her butt in public and refuse to go. Time Past and Present appear and reprise "Time" which pleased the audience. The epilogue seemed slapped on as an afterthought as Jacky , now no longer Ms Morality , seeks Rosy in a hospice only to learn she has died.

A largely competent work though lacking in cohesiveness which doesn't matter as no masterpiece was destroyed or created in the first place. For its supposed pertinence to politics and censorship in Singapore (actually very little) , I would propose another censorship panel in Singapore , one for Things of Dubious Quality and Taste. This would ensure that the kitschy parts of Sins and shows the likes of Big Bang will not see the light and spare us that lingering bad taste in the mouth.

Verdict : Watchable but nothing to scream about.