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Temptations small.jpg



Reviewed by Adi Soon

Music by Kenneth Lyen, Iskandar Ismail, Desmond Moey
Lyrics by Desmond Moey
Book by Kenneth Lyen
Directed by Jonathan Lim
Music Directed and Arranged by Iskandar Ismail
Date: 27-28 Apr 2000
Venue: Neptune Theatre Restaurant, Singapore

The difficult thing about local musicals is that they have so much visible competition to work against. This competition given their internationally renowned status, are some of the best products of Broadway. Examples like "Les Miserables", "Cats" and "Phantom of the Opera" garner an international fan base that expresses an enthusiastic adulation that no other form of theater can say to have. There is surely something about the musical that makes it such a popular genre. I suppose it is the musical's ability to engage on an emotional level that is the key factor. A pity though that the Singapore theater doesn't have anything remotely able to compete with the big boys. With more overseas productions like the recent "Chicago" coming to town, it gets easier to see the gulf in quality between the locals and the visitors. The bottom line is that originating a musical is a daunting task. The situation is not helped either by the scarcity of good song writers and good singer/actors. A musical is all about the music and performers require not only acting but singing prowess as well. Witness the immense talent that foreign casts bring. It is talent that literally blows the mind. The base of actor/singers of such caliber in Singapore is small. This is a fact that cannot be doubted.

With all the odds set against what the local industry can produce, the average lay person, not prone to expect anything from local theater, and already weaned on the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, would hardly give a local effort a chance, condemning it perhaps without even seeing it. And as a musical fan myself, I'm all for bettering the development of the musical genre in Singapore and it is for this reason that I qualify Temptations as a worthy effort in this direction.

For a few years now, a tightly knit creative team made up of Iskandar Ismail, Kenneth Lyen and Desmond Moey have been devising original musicals. Temptations is the latest product of their collaboration and for all the time and dedication spent in nurturing their passions in this particular theater genre, I must express my admiration for them.

Let me begin by saying that I had the opportunity to watch the preview version of the show, which was in essence a technical rehearsal. The cast got into the Neptune Theatre only in the morning of that day and only had a few hours to get used to the space. Furthermore numerous technical faults marred the show. The lighting was not controlled adequately and the wireless microphones had bad pickup. That said, it was possible to discern the show's overall quality even with this in mind since as always the fundamentals still hold.

There was nothing to fault about the plot. Set in modern day Singapore, it revolves around a restaurant with the title name of Temptations. Three vastly different couples meet and fall in love during the duration of the show. Loves' various incarnations are explored. We have the couple that fall in love effortlessly, the couple that can't seem to get along and the couple with one half made up of a cross-dressing man. Other than that four other actors make up a Greek Chorus who act as intermediaries to the audience and also take auxiliary parts in certain scenes. On the whole, the plot was rather interesting. Let's face it though, musicals aren't about plot. It may be an essential element but a musical can have the flimsiest plot and still stand entirely on the strength of its music. "Cats" is a good example of this. So had the weakest link been addressed, it would have easy to forgive the fact that there was no set to speak off, or that the costuming, lighting design and choreography were minimal in their quality.

What was the weakest link then? A musical is made up of songs linked together by little acting sequences that drive the plot. The songs are literally the icing on the cake. How well these songs are sung is important and it is no doubt that even a good singer can lift a mediocre song. Sadly the singing that Temptations offered ranged from the competent to the mediocre. This was the most disappointing aspect of the musical. A fact that also did not help was that some of the songs were spoiled by atrocious diction. The lyrics of the song help to carry the plot, but with vital pieces of information lost in the garbled Singaporean accent, I could not help feeling lost sometimes. This is usually a spiraling effect that begins with frustration and ends with apathy for a particular character. One specific actor, who shall remain anonymous, was especially guilty of this musical butchery. All I can say to him is to please learn to pronounce the words properly. And for those who do the casting, in a pinch, and bearing in mind that this is a musical, I'd rather have singers who can't act, than actors who can't sing.

Perhaps the only voice in the cast was Gani Abdul Karim whose role as a cross dresser required him to sing his parts in falsetto. He was vocally the strongest and his long stage experience shows. Special mention must be given to his rendition of "Tempt". This was the point in the play that, following a draggy beginning lifted it up a notch where I was forced to sit up and pay attention. The basis too for his character is rather interesting. Dressed up since young as a girl due to suspicious beliefs that spirits would kill him, he lives a female life though never renouncing his heterosexuality. When forced to confront his feelings for his best girl buddy, he has to decide if he wants to remake his own identify.

Acting honors must surely go next to Brendan. Whose understated and subtle gestures were a delight to see. Any scene that had him in it was entertaining, and this probably rubbed off on his cast members for they seemed better when he was on. The other cast members however did not provoke the same kind of response in terms of the acting. Most were stiff and wooden, delivering lines with no particular sense of purpose, and having no particular sense of energy. It may have been audience jitters but it was clear that these actors were inexperienced or if not, inexperienced in handling a musical. The direction in this respect was painfully inadequate and I suspect that it was something of a beginner's effort. The inclusion and juggling of so many elements left parts of the show mismatched to each other. Before the show started, director Jonathon Lim came on stage to say that an ambitious fervor had crafted the show into something that would not be a perfect representation of their intentions. Had this ambition been curbed, knowing and allowing the restraints in time and cast ability, I suspect a tighter, well-formed show would have been produced.

A word about the music though, it was most definitely an improvement over than "Yum Seng", and I remember as I sat there watching and listening, how I marveled at the different variations in the music and thinking how some of it was pretty good. I'd be willing to give it a chance if I were to hear the songs rendered by better singers. Some of the music seemed too challenging for the actors. An example was one point when the Greek chorus sang together and failed to harmonize, producing one big garbled mess. Though I could see the artistic merit in the music, it was only vaguely and through a poor medium of transmission.

Temptations will be staged again after a process of rewriting and recasting. They are eager for comments on how to improve which is a commendable attitude to say the least. In the words of Kenneth Lyen, "I would hope that we can develop our own unique Singaporean style and Singaporean voice. When we are more secure and more confident, it will not be long before we take the world by storm!" For this dream I'll wait it out a little more with them and expect to see a revitalized Temptations soon.

[This review first appeared in The Flying Inkpot.]