City Night Songs
Event: “City Night Songs” by Checkpoint Theatre and NUS Stage (as part of the NUS Arts Festival 2012)
Venue: UCC Theatre
Run: 10th – 11th Mar 2012
Because The Night Belongs To Lovers
The very notion of nightfall lends itself well to thoughts and expressions of the poetic nature, and being a lover of the night myself, I attended “City Nights Songs” with eager anticipation.
It didn’t help that the online buzz on Twitter and Facebook after opening night last night was rather enthusiastic, which made me even more excited to watch it, although the only caveat that kept popping up was that the show was too lengthy.
This production is a collaboration between Checkpoint Theatre and NUS Stage, and I love how theatre professionals have been given the opportunity to work with talented young students and vice versa.
It is directed by Huzir Sulaiman, while the script and songs are a collaborative effort by the entire cast, consisting of Gani Abdul Karim, Oon Shu An, Nessa Anwar, Judy Au, Nishant Jalgaonkar, Ivan Surya Tjahyo, and Joel Tan.
I liked that the programme booklet to “City Night Songs” was rather informative, and that it had included the all-important song list, which is the one bit of crucial information that I always turn to in a, uh, “musical” such as this (more on this point a little later).
One minor gripe I had with the “Sing to the Dawn” programme booklet was that it didn’t mention anything about the titles of the songs, which made it extremely difficult to keep track of the songs.
I know this might seem like petty semantics, but I would prefer to classify “City Night Songs” as a play with songs (hence my classification of this review under the “plays” category), rather than a full-fledged musical, even though its run-time of 2 hours 45 mins rivals even that of most Broadway musicals.
It is essentially a weaving together of different life stories affecting 7 friends as they negotiate their way through the treacherous landscape of urban city life.
Even though the songs portray the emotions of the characters rather well, you’d find that they aren’t actually fully integrated into the fabric of the play, and tend to be performed as short scenes on their own.
I liked the opening scene, which saw the entire ensemble coming out and performing the musical number “Voices Call Me Home” as a 7-piece band.
It showcased the varied musical abilities of the cast, as we see that Joel Tan plays the piano really well (not to mention the trumpet and trombone in subsequent songs), Gani does percussions, Nishant plays guitar, Ivan plays bass, and so on.
I thought “Voices Call Me Home” had this slight spiritual quality to it, almost like how “Circle of Life” works for the opening of “The Lion King”.
Musically, I thought the cast did rather well for the number “Warna-Warni”, which to me was the best-performed number by the ensemble, and which incidentally also garnered the strongest reception.
Sadly, the musical execution was generally found wanting for many of the songs, and I am fully aware that we obviously have to take into account the fact that the performers are all actors first, musicians second.
However – and I don’t know if I’m alone in thinking this way – I felt that there were points in which the poor musical execution actually detracted from the appreciation of the song, and to a larger extent, the play.
It was a distraction that was just too jarring to ignore.
The main issue was synchronisation between the various instruments, and while I do not wish to pinpoint any specific instruments, I would point out that the songs “If God Wants Me To Love Him” and “By My Side” were especially problematic.
“If God Wants Me To Love Him” also suffered from pitch issues, especially in the beginning part of the song, and took awhile to find its feet.
Nonetheless, this was the first time I had ever seen all the actors in a production actually play all the instrumental music to their own songs, and I thought it was a remarkably refreshing experience.
The cast was fortunate, in a way, as it received tremendously warm response from the audience throughout the play, which could partly be explained by the fact that a lot of the audience members were probably fellow NUS mates.
This warm response probably gave the performers the confidence and the motivation to also raise their game on stage, which resulted in the entire production being an extremely engaging experience.
However, this is not to say the playscript itself did not have the quality to match.
I found it incredibly funny when it wanted to be, and achingly poignant when it had to be.
The writing was generally top-notch, and I found “City Night Songs” to be one of the funniest plays I’d seen in awhile.
At times it almost seemed like a pastiche of theatre styles, what with heartfelt, tender moments to expletive-filled rants to comedic banter to exceedingly flowery monologues.
The plot was made up of the various storylines pertaining to the 7 characters, chronicling their search for friendship, love and meaning…something like an extended episode of “Friends” if you will.
There wasn’t anything especially complex about the plotlines.
They were largely simple and rather predictable, and ultimately, given the relative thinness of the plotlines, it didn’t feel to me like the play would have warranted the run-time of 2 hours 45 mins.
Yes, I do agree that the play’s duration could perhaps have been shortened.
If not for the fact that the performers were playing in front of a raucous home crowd, I wonder if the audience would not have felt it to be too draggy.
I enjoyed the performance of Judy Au very much, in the way she was able to demonstrate a range of acting ability.
Her Hong Kong impersonations were spot-on, and her comedic persona was unbearably funny, at times reminding me very much of Zooey Deschanel’s character from “500 Days of Summer”.
Joel Tan was just as impressive, and there seems to be no end to this young man’s myriad of talents – playwright, actor, musical director, composer, pianist, trumpeter, trombonist, etc.
The final song “The Best We Can Do”, sung by Joel and Shu An, was one of my favourites.
Amongst all the songs in “City Night Songs”, it most resembled a Broadway song in its conception, its lyrics and its melody.
The lyrics were incredibly witty, and the tune somehow made me think of Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” for some strange reason.
According to Huzir Sulaiman, the actual collaborative writing of “City Night Songs” only started 8 weeks ago.
And it just boggles the mind when you think about how much has been accomplished within this span of 8 weeks.
Hats off to the fine young talents of NUS Stage for what they’ve come up with, and to the professionals involved in the production as well for sharing their time and expertise.
I found “City Night Songs” to be extremely refreshing, engaging, and encouraging, and I deeply look forward to watching more of such collaborations in future.