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Sing to the Dawn


 

Sing to the Dawn

Reviewed by Stephen Chen Shengfang

Music: Dick Lee
Lyrics: Stephen Clark
Book: Ho Minfong and Stephen Clark
Director: Steven Dexter
Choreographer: Gani Abdul Karim
Year: 1996
Venue: Kallang Theatre

Based on Ho Mingfong's novel of the same name, Sing to the Dawn is a surprisingly good attempt at local musical theater. Its sets are gorgeous, its staging atmospheric and even if all else fails, the poignant story of Dawan, a Thai peasant girl who wins a scholarship to study in the city but has to overcome parental and societal objections to achieve her goal would ensure that this musical at least has a strong plot.

The visual imagery of Sing to the Dawn is multilayered and sometimes breathtaking. The sets consist of a series of slatted flats which are either flown in or rolled in different positions on trucks. This together with the heightened lighting created variously, an early dawn in the Thai village where you see the peasants getting up in the morning for their chores, various fences and houses in the village including the school and the breathtaking temple where you see various sections of the temple through the different slats and the worshippers in prayer. A bridge which has a rustic appeal with mangrove poles jutting out in all direction was especially effective with the projected globos to simulate the shimmering water beneath. However I felt that Francis O'Conner was rehashing his success in Little Shop of Horrors somewhat, as Dawn achieves its staging effects in a similar way albeit in a classier manner. It even has a house rolled on and off the stage and rotated to show its different views. It doesn't open up however. Instead it was a three-quarter cross section of the house and there was a particularly effective moment when Dawan's mother tries to dissuade her decision by telling her about the dangers and vices of "The City". The house is pulled apart in the middle, effectively breaking the mother and daughter's embrace as they called to the other on the different halves while through the void in the center, we see Go-go girls, prostitutes, pimps, laborers all eking out in the city.

Stephen Dexter is so far the only director to be able to achieve filmic effects and smooth scene changes in local theater. However, he belongs to the school of thought where when singing a ballad, one must stand center stage and belt at the footlights. Then again, this may be derived from his effective if somewhat manipulative staging whose sole purpose usually is to generate audience applause. An example would be getting the performers to rush suddenly toward the front of the stage together during the big numbers but that may be due to the choreographer rather than the director.

Dick Lee as usual provided us with his typically forgettable fare but I found his music more focused as he concentrates more on character rather than trying to churn out potential hit songs and three numbers particularly stand out "My Child", "The City" and "It just flies" for their sheer theatricality. Despite this, he cannot resist the temptation to write "When all the tears have dried" which makes its appearance three times in the show and which most of the audience seemed to like. However, I find his work filled with formula; his musicals always have an opening chorus singing vacuous things about the show the audience is going to see.

The cast all had irritating pseudo-Thai accents when performing. Is it really necessary? What are they trying to prove? They are just propagating the oriental stereotype of broken English accents which is not only artificial and stilted but entirely redundant. None of the cast is a good singer, they are just average singers. I find a terrible pervasiveness in Singapore theater to produce beautiful head and chest voices but not giving a single damn about their inflection (which even if they do, comes out sounding more appropriate for MTV than anything else). Despite the characters being well-developed, I still found them somewhat two-dimensional, probably due to the cast having not gotten into character. The book is almost faultless and is mostly faithful to the novel it is based on.

The orchestra was lush and rightly so for they somehow managed to get the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra to accompany them. In fact they should be ashamed of wasting so much money on this production which ran for only three nights (and they even had a motorized revolve built for it). None of the money spent could be recouped even if the musical ran for full houses all three nights. I think sponsors and the National Arts Council should rethink their policies on grants.

Even though I found the choreography and direction taut and satisfactory. As always they will slip in a pseudo - arty moment so that the audience can leave gushing at how "artistic" it was. The one that irked me most was the end of Act I when Dawan sings the first instance of "When the Tears have dried" on her fears of losing the scholarship. The stage is populated by Thai dancers doing graceful hand motions in projected revolving "roses". Whatever the connection between them... only God knows.

Sing to the Dawn is a pretty good musical to watch overall. Even if it's not the best, it at least is the best so far. Oh yes, the CD is worth buying too!

Verdict : Good attempt.