>judah ben-hur by epic entertainment

>reviewed by arthur kok

>date: 24 jan 2002
>time: 8pm
>venue: nus cultural centre
>rating: ***

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


Ever been to a wannabe musical? The story may be engaging, the choreography excellent, the set fabulous, but the music is just a lame excuse to set every sentence to a tune. Personally, I am fed up with these half-baked attempts. It was a joy therefore to witness JUDAH BEN-HUR, a musical that features many beautifully wrought songs.

David M. Sanborn and his mother Ellen spun memorable melodies such as 'I Remember You', 'Now that I Have Found You' and 'Finally Free'. I find it especially rewarding when every element is scrupulously conceived and put together. After all, how long can one excuse anything and everything in the name of good fun (unless you are talking about 'Mama Mia')? Particularly noteworthy was the irreverent 'Do as the Romans Do' infused with big-band swing sensibility complete with a dash of jitterbug in the movement department. This number recalls the comedic genre-switches of Disney animated musicals (and it should be pointed out that Disney is not always synonymous with brain-dead bad).

>>'The musical weaves the thematic threads of Lee Wallace's novel 'Ben-Hur' refreshingly enough to hold its own against the more famous movie epic of the same name'

The musical weaves the thematic threads of Lee Wallace's novel 'Ben-Hur' refreshingly enough to hold its own against the more famous movie epic of the same name. For one, the love between Judah and Esther has a bit more humour and a lot less angst. The stage version features an almost ditzy post-pubescent Esther compared to the simmering, penetrating-line-by-the-minute celluloid Esther. For another, the Messianic anticipation and realisation in the person of Christ Jesus was made more pointed in the musical. The Son of God was demystified by being changed from the quiet, ethereal personage of the film into a gregarious, warm and wise Son of Man.

Fleshing out the themes was a cast of uniform ability. Of course, David M. Sanborn was especially at ease playing the title character since he wrote nearly half the musical! The actors danced and sang amidst a set ingeniously designed by Sean Cavanagh. Conceived as a primary set composed of façades, columns and stairways that spun on a huge turntable, this construction enabled the audience to follow the action through and around walls, giving the production a distinctive outside-inside perspective. On a side note, there was something about the way the actors pushed the sets into place that evoked the Israel of the play's past Egyptian slavery and present Roman oppression.

With diffused lighting, lighting designer J. T. Moore seemed to opt for a dream-like feel. Even for exuberant scenes such as 'Dawn is Finally Breaking', the light was kept a few notches below day-brightness. While the restraint in lighting appeared to serve some purpose, the same cannot be said for the sound. Majestic and emotionally high numbers such as 'Glory in the Highest' would have soared with stronger projection. Likewise, 'Do as the Romans Do' would have realised itself as a high-gear romp if the amplification was nudged a few levels higher.

Apart from these minor faults, the musical left a warm impression and seems ready for Broadway. It is just a sheer waste that it played to such small audiences. Go watch it before it finishes its run!