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I Theatre Presents “Sing to the Dawn”

March 10, 2012

Event: “Sing to the Dawn” presented by I Theatre
Venue: Drama Centre Theatre
Run: 5th – 19th Mar 2012

Unfulfilled Ambitions

It always excites me whenever there is a new local musical production being put up, especially one with new original songs.

My familiarity with “Sing to the Dawn” can be considered low to medium at best, having never read the classic Ho Minfong O-level text nor seen the Dick Lee stage musical.

The only time I’d ever come across “Sing to the Dawn” was when I made the ill-fated decision to watch the 2008 animated movie, which duly reconfigured my impressions of the local animated film industry, and not in a good way.

I have also been familiar with that one gem of a song from Dick Lee’s “Sing to the Dawn” stage musical called “When All The Tears Have Dried”, which, in my opinion, is one of Dick Lee’s finest tunes from all the musicals he’s ever composed for.

Now on to this latest iteration of the fabled tale…

Firstly, kudos to Brian Seward and I Theatre for attempting to put up a project like this.

From reading the programme booklet itself, you can see that a lot of effort and commitment has been put into this production as it is staged at the Drama Centre Theatre and features Bang Wenfu as composer/arranger, 53A’s Sara Wee as musical director (interesting choice!), the talented Eucien Chia as set designer, and so on.

The lovely Isabella Chiam stars as lead character Dawan, while relative fresh face Jonathan Lum (who bears more than a passing resemblance to CNA newscaster Timothy Go) plays her brother Kwai.

Then there are also the familiar faces of Dwayne Lau, Siti Khalijah, Andrew Lua, and so on.

Just a side note: Do not be mistaken – this is not a restaging of the Dick Lee musical.

This is a brand new production with brand new songs composed by Bang Wenfu.

(By the way, anyone knows who did the lyrics? I’m guessing Brian Seward, but it was not explicitly stated in the programme booklet.)

The musical tells the story of a young village girl Dawan and her relationship with her brother, and how she by virtue of being the top student secures the village’s only scholarship to study in the city at the expense of her brother, who incidentally scored second highest.

And thus, the entire musical portrays the conflict and struggle Dawan goes through as she deals with strong gender prejudices while also having to think in the best interest of her brother, and ultimately, of her entire family.

Does she break the mould of social convention and forge ahead with her dream of studying in the big city, or does she take a step back and let her brother Kwai have the chance to do so, since he’d probably get more mileage out of it anyway?

I liked how this show remained true to the tenets of musical theatre.

I liked the reflective opening scene, where we are first introduced to the two main characters and their hopes and dreams.

I liked the closing number of the first act, which was very “West Side Story” in the way it brought together the different groups of characters onto the same stage while altogether singing the very dramatic and climactic closing song.

It gave a resounding sense of finality to the first act, yet with a foreboding sense of suspense saved for the second act, just the way the first act of a musical should end.

I also liked how there was a good balance of ballads, up-tempo numbers, and quirky songs throughout the entire musical.

Although I daren’t say that I was able to remember many of the tunes upon walking out of the theatre, I would have to praise Bang Wenfu for his highly inventive musical arrangements for the various songs.

Unfortunately, I Theatre’s “Sing to the Dawn” did also suffer from a number of shortcomings.

I got the sense throughout the performance that the audience was not completely drawn into the proceedings.

I can’t say this for a fact, but after going to so many shows, you can somewhat tell whether an audience is into a show or not.

And from the general body language of the audience around me, it didn’t seem to me like the audience was as emotionally involved in the proceedings as I would have hoped they would be, and neither was I.

I suppose it could be the fact that I Theatre’s “Sing to the Dawn” couldn’t decide for itself if it would play to children or to adults, and it ended up being in a strange no man’s land whereby the target audience could not be suitably determined.

Laughs were few and far between, and even if they occurred it was usually as a result of Audrey Luo’s comedic antics, which worked pretty well for the kids.

The big city scene which portrayed a rather scantily-dressed nightclub dancer in the background seemed a tad out of place due to its overtly explicit nature, and while no one would have bat an eyelid if this were any other theatre production meant for adults, it just seemed instinctively incongruous here considering the entire show up till that point seemed to be selling itself as a piece of children’s theatre, or at least for young people.

Jonathan Lum put in a wonderful performance, both in acting and singing, and might probably be one to watch out for in the near future.

Isabella Chiam was remarkable as well, having to play the lead role and portray all the anguish and conflict that Dawan had to go through, although in the singing department she perhaps might not have been as competent as some of the others in the cast.

I don’t mean to criticise anyone, and I don’t know if it was just my imagination, but for the first few songs in the show, I thought some parts of some of the songs sounded a tad off-key.

Overall, this production seemed to lack that emotional hook which would reel you into a story and make you want to be invested in it.

For some strange reason it just made you feel somewhat detached from the proceedings.

Also, the “rule of Chekhov’s gun” comes to mind for this production in the way it set up the whole notion of the oppressive landlord in the first few scenes (there was even a song about him, although we never actually get to see him), and how he is demanding rent in the form of sacks of rice from the poor villagers…and yet from the second act onwards we neither see nor hear from this mysterious landlord character ever again.

It just felt like one of the story elements which you thought would have been developed, but never was.

I can’t say I was mesmerised or even engaged by “Sing to the Dawn”, but I will say that I fully appreciate the efforts of I Theatre in bringing to us a brand new musical version of the revered text which has been read by generations of schoolkids past and present.

It is always an enormous undertaking to put up a new musical, especially one with new original songs, and in that respect I think we’ve got a lot to thank I Theatre for.

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