The French Connection
Since the bad old colonial days, the Brits have been doing theatre in Singapore. The most lasting relic of that habit - the Stage Club - has put on plays year after year since 1945, staffed by a mixed group of mainly British expatriates and Singaporeans.
It's only fair, one supposes, that the French should have their turn. So enter Sing'theatre, a "non-profit professional Singaporean theatre company with a French touch", by its own description. Founder Nathalie Ribette has worked for ten years in theatre in Singapore, and has spent the last two years studying the evolution of the performing arts in Singapore, supported by the likes of Hossan Leong, Glen Goei, Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma. No Regrets: A Tribute to Edith Piaf is her first production under the aegis of her company, though first produced and directed by her in 2004 in partnership with the Alliance Française. Written by Britisher Philip McConnell, a regular director at the Stage Club, the musical revue celebrates of the life and work of the famed Parisian diva.
No Regrets is an excellent show - a night of relentlessly classy entertainment, featuring lovely renditions of Piaf's songs and littered with intriguing biographical nuggets provided by MC Hossan Leong. The staging was minimal, but the height of chic, recalling a relaxed Parisian cabaret - the band of accordion, piano, drums, violin and double bass took centrestage, while Leong and the vocal quartet sat round a café table to the side, occasionally advancing downstage to the mikes to sing. The predominant costume colour was black, with hints of red and white, as was the preference of Piaf herself - even the Front-of-House crew wore "little black dresses" trimmed with red to set the stage.
As soon as the quartet began the show with Piaf's signature song, La Vie En Rose, the tone for the evening was set: the four singers each brought very different performance styles and energies to their interpretations of the music, suggesting the complexity of the woman herself; a stirring variety in the monomania of idolatry. Oddly, their characters seemed to correspond to the four alchemical elements: Aurore, a 20 year-old performer from France, seemed to personify air with her waify presence and gentle but occasionally playful style of singing; the well-known Emma Yong embodied water with her stronger but still delicate performance style; jazz singer Asha smouldered like fire, with her robust but sanguine and seductive voice, while Leigh McDonald took on the qualities of earth with her deep register and powerfully dramatic musical renditions.
The four worked well together on stage - subtle choreographies of simple, co-ordinated movements in front of the mikes focussed the eye more gracefully and effectively than a loud can-can or tango would have. And in their own way, all four were wonderful - it's hard to pick a favourite between Yong's bitterly romantic Lovers for A Day, Asha's bluesy The Three Bells and McDonald's violently wrought performance as a lovelorn prostitute in The Accordionist. However, Aurore's almost ethereal fragility, which ranged from evocative nostalgia in Sous le ciel de Paris to an infectious playfulness in the clap-along Milord made her the most obvious star of the evening, best representing Edith Piaf in her incarnation as the Little Sparrow.
With such expressive singing, it was perhaps of little consequence that Aurore, Yong and Hossan Leong sang many songs exclusively in French - a little introductory patter by Leong was enough to set the context for each new song, and the obvious emotion of the music obviated the need for supertitles. The themes of passion and obsessive love in Piaf's works came out strongly in the show - breathtakingly overleaping translation barriers in intense solos such as Padam... Padam...
Yet it might be this feature that identified No Regrets as an uncomprisingly ambassadorial work, focussed on celebrating l'esprit francaise rather than considering any intersections with Singapore identity. One finds it odd that after so much interaction with the local theatre community, Ribette stuck so forcefully to her French roots - there was no exploration of any new insight that might be shed into the works of Piaf from a Singapore perspective; no evident attempt to create something new to justify the "Sing" in the name of Sing'theatre.
McConnell's script, at least, took a daringly fresh approach to biography by skipping almost stochastically through incidents in Piaf's life - beginning, naturally, with her legendary birth on the pavement of Rue de Belleville 72, but meandering without discernible pattern through her innumerable romances and habits, reaching an emotional climax with the death of her great love Marcel Cerdan in plane crash, set to songs like My God and Hymn to Love. This liberating treatment, however, was at times a trifle disorienting to the viewer, depriving him of a sense of progress through the no-interval performance - on one occasion, I consulted my watch, perplexed that the show had continued so long after Piaf's death from cancer.
As MC, Leong took a casual, affable approach towards narration, which worked well - save for the odd moments when he tripped up on his lines. As a singer, actor and Ambassadeur Francophone, he must have been an obvious choice for the cast of this show, yet I question the decision that led him to play the parts as Piaf's lovers in several duets. We've known Leong too well as an animated, stick-figured comedian who occasionally does drag - it's hard to imagine him as a straight prize-fighter in desperate love with Emma Yong.
On the whole, however, No Regrets acquitted itself admirably as the maiden production of Sing'theatre, coming through with high production values and a gargantuan dose of sophistication. Fans of the musical revue would do well to look out for their next production planned for 2008, a similar revue of the music of legendary Belgian singer Jacques Brel.
It's probably irrelevant, then, that I remain troubled by the cultural politics of the show, which, though locally-written and starring prominent local theatre and music practitioners alongside French artistes, was so culturally one-sided that it's hardly "theatre with a French touch" - it's French theatre with a spot of homegrown talent added. It'd be wonderful if the group goes further than simply feeding palatable nostalgia to French expatriates and Singaporean Europhiles; nostalgia for a Paris that existed before it was swallowed up by immigrants and rap. What if it were to devise a play on Singaporeans' encounters with French culture, which could be brought to France itself for performance?
But of course, producing musical medleys is the safe and commercially viable thing to do; a terribly Singaporean decision, on reflection. As of now, Sing'theatre's made its first steps to establish itself in the larger calendar of classy entertainment. Perhaps - like many a post-colonial - it only needs time to let itself go native.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /