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“Glass Anatomy – The Musical” 《搭错车》

May 6, 2013
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GlassAnatomy1(picture courtesy of Toy Factory Productions)

Event: “Glass Anatomy – The Musical” 《搭错车》
Venue: Esplanade Theatre
Run: 3rd – 12th May 2013

The Green Green Glass of Home

It was a long time in coming, but “Glass Anatomy” finally sees Toy Factory pulling out the stops in what is likely to be the largest locally-produced Chinese musical this year.

A few things stand out right from the onset: One – the whole Wicked-green colour theme, two – the fact that Mandopop star Della Ding Dang headlines this production, and three – the overt use of the “glass” motif.

In fact, I’ve often wondered what the English title “Glass Anatomy” has to do with the Chinese title “搭错车” (which literally means taking the wrong bus), but that just goes to show you how much the “glass” metaphor is supposed to figure in this musical.

I suppose expectations might run high for those who have been fans of the award-winning 1983 Taiwanese film “Papa, Can You Hear Me Sing?” on which this musical is based, especially since it also features a number of well-known songs from the movie.

However, I was not familiar with the film at all, and thus I went with hardly any preconceived notions.

Goh Boon Teck, who has adapted the original script and translated it onto the stage, directs the entire production and also serves as set designer.

Benny Wong is responsible for the music arrangement, while Elaine Chan serves as musical director.

The musical stars a number of well-known actors such as Judee Tan, Tan Shou Chen, Audrey Luo, Eleanor Tan, Jeffrey Low and Sugie Phua, but it’s hard to deny the fact that the show is essentially a star vehicle for Ding Dang.

One of the first things you notice before the show begins is the fact that the musicians are not in the pit, but rather, they occupy the front-most two pockets of seats on both the left and right sides of the theatre.

This unusual configuration was peculiar to say the least, with Elaine Chan having to direct from one of the four modules, but she did a fantastic job nonetheless.

I suppose the musicians had to be arranged as such because the pit was ingeniously used as part of the set design, not only allowing the actors to descend and ascend from it via a flight of stairs on each side, but also to accommodate a rather impressive elevating platform right at the centre portion of the pit, which made for more than a few dramatic entrances.

The storyline of the musical was your typical melodramatic plot: Young girl from a poor village is blessed with a beautiful voice and is eventually discovered by a scheming record producer, and while she lives her dream of fame and stardom, she eventually slides further away from her loved ones, but not before turning back and finally recognising the things that truly matter in life.

I found the plot a bit too simplistic and straightforward for my liking, and it didn’t help that a number of the characters seemed like your classic stock characters from a TV melodrama, with very little in the script to give them the added depth that they sorely needed.

Kudos to Judee Tan for a mesmerising performance as the former-favourite-of-the-record-producer-but-now-past-her-sell-by-date Shen Ni (think Helen Lawson in “Valley of the Dolls”), who exudes a sense of charisma and jadedness both at the same time.

Jeffrey Low is commendable too as the archetypal scheming record company boss who constantly threatens to exhibit a human side, if only the script would have given him greater room for maneuver.

Sugie Phua is a complete natural on stage, and his crisp tenor voice once again brings back fond memories from the last time I saw him in “Lao Jiu”, although sadly the same cannot be said for Rayve Tay, whose relative stiffness made things seem a little awkward especially when playing off Sugie and Ding Dang.

The “glass spirits”, played by a group of male and female actors in the ensemble, not only serve as a Greek chorus but are also instrumental in managing essentially the only set in the musical, consisting of tall scaffolding structures which can each be easily moved around by a single actor and assembled together for various purposes.

It must be said that the musical makes greater use of the expanse of the Esplanade Theatre than I have ever seen of any production there, and utilises the entire depth of the theatre space right till the last wall at the very far end of the stage.

I’ve never seen the Esplanade Theatre being used that deep before, and neither did I know that there was so much depth to it in the first place.

If only the same could be said for the depth of the musical though, because emotionally, it hardly managed to hit the sweet spot for me, not because the songs weren’t any good, but because I felt the story and the characters weren’t properly fleshed out.

For example, the supposed love triangle dynamic between Ah Mei, Ah Ming and Shi Jun Mai was hardly well-developed, and thus you didn’t really feel the need to empathise with either of the male characters as the story progressed.

There seemed to be a sense of predictability to the entire proceedings, which made the journey pleasant but not memorable.

But overall, despite the rather harsh reviews from the press thus far, there isn’t anything exceptionally bad about “Glass Anatomy”.

It features an immensely beautiful and talented star in Ding Dang who executes her very first musical theatre role incredibly well, and it features a number of interesting directorial touches to keep you suitably engaged.

The entire show is 110 minutes long without intermission – far shorter than a regular full-length musical – so you cannot possibly accuse it of being draggy or long-winded.

However, you could perhaps say that the musical is formulaic, predictable, and holds hardly any surprises, in the way a glass bottle is unlikely to hold any surprises for the one peering into it.

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