Saturday, March 14, 2009

Sleepless Town: the musical

SLEEPLESS TOWN: the musical
Reviewed 14 March 2009

Sleepless Town the musical is about Nora, a troubled girl who is brought to an eerie fantasy place called Sleepless Town. It is a world of lawlessness and darkness, ruled by a Queen of all Evil, Black Azira. She wants to immortalize herself by depriving inhabitants of their dreams which in effect will kill them. To thwart Azira, Nora tries to enlist the help of the superheroes Flying Fox, the Batman lookalike, Sparrowman, the Robin lookalike, and The Incredible Bulk (whose hulky frame bulges to excess). But these superheroes are quite pathetic and totally useless. Eventually Nora has to battle Black Azira on her own.

We now live in an era where superheroes tend to be depicted as flawed people. The authors could have tackled the material as a satire, like Hancock or The Incredibles. Alternatively it could have taken the over-the-top politically incorrect route like The Rocky Horror Show or Spamalot. A musical set in a gothic fantasy world, with weird, menacing characters, could have adopted the style of a horror genre. As an aside, the experience of horror musicals is that they have almost always failed. Only comedies masquerading as horror musicals, like The Evil Dead, have succeeded.

The path chosen by Sleepless Town turns out to be the worst. Yes, there are moments of outrageous behavior reminiscent of The Rocky Horror Show and Spamalot. This would have worked if the musical was a comedy and did not take itself too seriously. Sleepless Town started comically, but soon became very ponderous.

If this is a show about a child’s dream and how she combats her own personal demons, then the emphasis on sex, especially in the dance numbers, is excessive.

The unexpected raping of Nora by her stepfather, her mother’s attempt to murder him, acts of uncalled-for cruelty, coupled with Nora’s encounter with the father who had died some time ago, turns the musical into a tragic melodrama. This is out of keeping with the rest of the show and inconsistent with its cast of wacky characters. It catches the audience off balance because up to that point, it still perceives the musical as a comedy. This failure to choose an appropriate general tenor consistent with the storyline and characters ultimately proves fatal.

The opening and closing has Aristotle, played by Mark Richmond, narrating the story in poetic meter. The spoken dialogue, however, does not continue this poetic form, and therefore becomes quite jarring. The plot is badly developed, and is generally quite confusing. The needs of each of the characters are also not well expressed. There is no dramatic tension and in the first half, we do not root for any of the characters.

Jason Tan’s music is quite good, but the songs tend to be a bit flat and could do with more build up into a climax. The lyrics are uninspiring.

Many of the songs do not have a developmental arc. For example, Nora’s song “I’ll Find My Way” has a nice melody line and lyrics...
One day I’ll fly far away
When there is nothing here for me to stay
I know there ‘s somewhere I have to be
Every night I’ll pray
That I’ll find my way
To find me

... but I wish it went further to explore how she might find herself.

A couple of the songs could have been taken out or shortened without significant loss. The song featuring historical villains, like Hitler, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, has great promise, but the comic potential is not brought out by the lyrics. There are jokes scattered throughout, but they are too few and far between.

The musical picks up in the second half. The two duets between Nora and her father, and between Nora and her mother, are very touching, and they are the highlights of this musical.

Overall the cast is very strong. Special mention must be made of Julia Abueva who plays Nora, and Karen Tan, playing her mother. Elena Wang, as Black Azira, has a very fine voice, and is convincingly wicked. Andrew Lua makes a rather comic Incredible Bulk, and Chua En-Lai fits his role as an oddball.

The sets are remarkably effective and one must congratulate Eucien Chia. The choreography by Zaini Mohd Tahir is imaginative and the dancing well-synchronized.

Sleepless Town starts off with great promise, but fails to deliver. It is marred by a poor script and lackluster lyrics. The good music, the excellent singing, are not able to lift the musical out of its messy plot. However, this musical is salvageable with a more critical rewrite.

Director: Beatrice Chia-Richmond
Writer: Mark Richmond
Composers: Don Richmond and Jason Tan
Music Director: Elaine Chan
Choreographer: Zaini Mohd Tahir
Set Designer: Eucien Chia
Lighting Designer: Dorothy Png
Sound Designer: Shah Tahir
Costume Designer: Frederick Lee
Vocal Coach: Amanda Colliver

Cast: Julia Abueva, Karen Tan, Elena Wang, Mark Richmond, Andrew Lua, Bobby Tonelli, Chua Enlai, Daniel Boey, Edwin Sumun, Farhan Hassan, Gordon Choy, Josephine Tan, Matt Jasper, Theodor Paulsen, Zachary Goh

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