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Atlas Unbound

Atlas Unbound Daniel Teh small.jpg


by the NUS Medical Society

Reviewed by Kenneth Lyen

It is difficult to review an original student musical fairly. If you look at the first works of famous musical theatre writers, most have failed. For example, Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s first show “Dearest Enemy”, a serious show about the American Revolution, was quickly forgotten. A similar fate befell Stephen Sondheim’s first musical, “By George”. John Kander and Fred Ebb first collaboration was on a musical called “Golden Gate”, which was not produced.

Hence it would be unsporting of me to make critical comments on the National University of Singapore Medical Society’s musical “Atlas Unbound” which was staged from 19th to 20th September at the Kallang Theatre. However, please allow me to make a few critical remarks, mainly to help avoid pitfalls in future productions.

Individually, each component was magnificent. Unlike so many student productions, the singing for Atlas Unbound was excellent and pitch perfect. I was impressed by the cast, especially the leads Tan En Ying (Shinji) and Goh Li Ting (Iltani). Shawn Tan Teng Jie who played the role of The Fool, nearly stole the show for his humorous antics. Joan Leong Huijun who played the role of the Chief Priestess, Gregory Yeoh Wei Jie who played the role of the Masahiro Commander, Melissa Chua who played the double role of the Priestess and the Guard, and many others too numerous to mention, can all be commended on their performances.

The dancing was well-synchronized and the choreography imaginative. Kudos to the choreographers and dance captains Tna Jing Yuan, Tan Yin Shuen, and Joan Lee. The fight scenes could have been choreographed differently: either more realistically or more abstractly stylized.

The costumes were appropriate for the settings, and they were let by Magdalene Lee.

Really outstanding was the backlit stage backdrop. They really wowed one with each scene change. Especially effective were when the backdrops were combined with animation, such as the volcano erupting or the burning fires.

I enjoy avant garde classical music, and thus I was not averse to the classical semi-operatic music of Atlas Unbound. It sat halfway between European 19th century classical music and early 20th century avant garde dissonant music. But musical appreciation is very much a personal affair, and all I can say is that it didn’t really work for me. I would have preferred it to have adopted a more modern idiom. Nevertheless musical director and composer Chu Ben Wee and his team should be commended for their original music. The orchestra accompanied the singers sensitively, and added color to the emotions beautifully.

Lyric writing is perhaps one of the most difficult art form. The words have to reflect the personality of the character, convey a message, and synchronize with the music. For the most part, the lyrics were acceptable.

What about stage directions? Unfortunately it suffered the fate of many student productions. For example, on several occasions, the singer sang out of sight, behind other cast members. I think student productions should try to minimize overacting, exaggerated inflexions of the spoken word, and unnatural arm gestures when singing. Nevertheless overall the directors Rachel Chew, Mishanti Wijedasa and Aaron Ng did a very good job considering the scale of the production. The producers Alex Lua and Seth Yeak must also be congratulated for their organizational skills.

An often asked question about writing a musical is, “Which comes first, the music or the lyrics?” The classical answer is: “The book”, meaning the story. In fact perhaps the most important fact determining whether a musical succeeds or fails is due to the storytelling.

Sadly, Atlas Unbound was hampered by an unclear story. In the creative process, probably more attention should have been paid to the plot and character arcs.

However, this should not detract from the overall achievements of the production. I enjoyed the show, and I would give it an A for effort!


21 Sept 2014