High School of Hard Knocks
Everyone wants in on the teen scene: cinemas are full of families watching High School Musical and Twilight, adults devour the Harry Potter series on the MRT, and local celebrity couple Lim Yu Beng and Tan Kheng Hua have created a teenage musical extravaganza.
Their creative team includes Tan Ju Meng, set designer for two of the four highly acclaimed Dim Sum Dollies productions and the recently raved-about Turandot by the Singapore Lyric Opera. He conceptualised the backdrop of silhouetted buildings with windows that the live band could peep through, and he designed the raised, curved platform of the playing space so that it could comfortably accommodate a cast of ten, even in the dance numbers. He also recruited a team of budding designers from post-secondary institutions who were all involved in the painstaking process of decorating the backdrop with a motif of birds in flight, and who hand-painted the floor to look like wood. As I laid eyes on the set when I entered the University Cultural Centre, colours leapt out at me from the normally black walls, including the purple flock of birds and the yellow, woody textured floor. The set was shimmering with life, vibrant and edgy - perfect for the crowd this musical was made for, about and by: teens.
All ten characters were perpetually onstage, bursting with exuberance. After the play began in pseudo-Idol style, where each character was lit in a spot while his or her name was called, we were treated to the first song and dance routine to celebrate being cast: We're In! This started things off on a rambunctious note, which was just a little overwhelming for me, even for an opening sequence. So it was to my relief that the second song was ushered in tenderly after the characters were asked their thoughts on the subject of parents. Last Train Home was to be the song that haunted me for days to come.
The cast was impressive in their musical presentation. They certainly established their ability to belt out the first number, and others like Crash Landing and Paper Jam (the latter of which was written by Dave Tan of Electrico) but it was their discipline and restraint in Last Train Home that made my jaw drop. As an ensemble, the cast was cohesive and performed wonderfully, but even in the solos the individual members shone. The first voice that made me sit up, spellbound, belonged to Glory Ngim, playing Gail. In her duet with Conan Choong, playing Corey, her vocals had just the right amount of control and emotion. Her voice was unaffected, unaccented and charming. Sarah Cheng, in the role of Sharon, gave a stunningly heartfelt rendering of The Stranger in Me. Nabil Aliffi, playing Arif, captivated the audience even without a solo. Right after the interval he comically asked "Eh, this life ah, can get refund one or not?" But then he turned the comedy haunting as he went on to sing the beginning of A Million Maps, and was joined by the company as each lamented "My steps are too small to make any mark". Their singing did justice to Chong Tze Chien's lyrics and also brought out the best of musical director Bang Wenfu's compositions.
The quality of the musical performances alone is worth the four stars I have awarded, and director Lim Yu Beng played up this strength, ensuring a song made an appearance at every opportunity. But while the cast was confident when singing, the moments between the songs were often tentative and cast members sometimes resorted to playing stereotypes, especially since the development of character consisted of rapid jumps from scene to scene and quick spurts of revelatory speeches.
However, one scene that fellow Inkpotter Kenneth and I both enjoyed was the "Facebook status" scene, which ranged from oddities, such as "Gail is cheese fries", to trivia, such as "Corey is mad that Manchester lost to Chelsea", to more meaningful expressions, such as "Claire is wondering why nobody ever means what they say" and "Colette is not coming home tonight, or tomorrow night". It was as though we were watching the play through a lens, zooming in on one character then another ever more quickly, but always zooming out again before we got close. This was understandable considering the cast of ten and the short duration of the play, and it worked for the scene above - but as the play went on, and little time was alotted for me to get to know the characters more intimately, I found I could not develop concern for them and I began to wonder if the cast had only a light grip on their characters.
Mohd Farid's characterization of Farouk was an exception, though. I have never felt more tenderly for a bad boy in jail than in the scene where Farid portrayed returning to his family after his imprisonment. His scooping his little sister into his arms while marvelling at how big she had become in his absebnce could have descended into bathos, except that Farid treated his role with real sincerity. Sarah Cheng also made her character someone to remember thanks to her steady delivery of a simple monologue on her accidental pregnacy.
Tan Kheng Hua said in her welcome speech that the year-long process of producing It's My Life! had become her life. The sincerity and passion of the cast (Life-rs) and crew (Shadows) elevated It's My Life! to something more than just another cookie-cutter musical.
Kenneth Kwok's First Impression (***)
My favourite part of this musical (billed as being "about teens, for teens, by teens") is the music. Not only do the songs have the anthemic quality of all good musical numbers but the school-going teen cast has the singing chops and showmanship to more than do justice to Bang Wenfu's stirring melodies and rich harmonies. The plaintive but hopeful Last Train Home is the group's Seasons of Love, while We're In and Crash Landing have a rock opera crunch that wouldn't be out of place in Spring Awakening. I dare say that with more training, a couple of these young talents (gathered from junior colleges, polytechnics and universities) could even be successful professional singers.
Where It's My Life falters, however, is in its playmaking. The performers generally acquit themselves well as actors but they are not well-served by the fragmentary nature of the work which gives us little time to get to know the characters they are playing, especially when there are ten of them. I preferred it when director Lim Yu Beng eschewed vague stabs at individual narrative arcs and instead set up ensemble scenes that spoke with a collective voice (e.g. Facebook! Life Begins At 2am...). These can come across like theatre exercises but when done well, as they often are here, they work much better than magnesium flashes of story. All in all, It's My Life is an enjoyable theatrical experience even if not golden all the way through - do support this extremely worthwhile project if you can.
Vivienne Tseng's First Impression (****)
Everything you'd expect from a teenage musical and more - It's My Life looks good, sounds good and feels good. You'll want a CD after the show so you can learn to sing the words to the infectious tunes. Under the guidance of director Lim Yu Beng, the exuberant cast takes classic teenage misfits beyond stereotype with heartrending delivery of intimate monologues.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /