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“Romeo & Juliet” by Toy Factory Productions

February 22, 2014

Romeo&JulietToyFactory1(picture courtesy of Toy Factory Productions)

Event: “Romeo & Juliet” by Toy Factory Productions
Venue: Drama Centre Theatre
Run: 13th – 23rd Feb 2013

Sweet Sorrow

It seems “Romeo & Juliet”, one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s tragedies, is an ever-popular choice of play to stage here in Singapore.

Two years ago we saw W!ld Rice’s take on it, and right at this very moment there are three distinct “Romeo & Juliets” on sale at SISTIC – Singapore Dance Theatre’s from 13th to 16th March, one by TNT Theatre Britain playing at the Jubilee Hall from 9th to 11th April, and of course, this one by Toy Factory which we are presently reviewing.

The play needs no further introduction, but this Toy Factory production directed by Nell Ng is notable for introducing a entire score of 18 original songs composed by Elaine Chan, which effectively renders it a musical instead of merely a straight play.

One of the first things people would naturally ask when a new production of “Romeo & Juliet” is introduced is “Who’s playing Romeo and Juliet?”, and in this case it is the multi-talented Benjamin Kheng, who also plays in popular local band The Sam Willows, and Ethel Yap, who was last seen as Xeno in W!ld Rice’s “Jack & the Bean-Sprout!”.

Benjamin exudes considerable charm in his portrayal of the handsome and boyish Romeo, thus ensuring rapt attention from the female side of the audience, while Ethel plays Juliet with poise and grace, with a nice clarity to her singing voice.

It is apparent that great effort has been made to tailor the production towards a younger audience, with the young cast decked out in casual white trendy outfits throughout the play.

Hints of that can be seen in the music as well, with funkier arrangements that cater to an audience more attuned to their Rihannas and One Directions, than say Leonard Bernstein on “West Side Story”.

However, the intention to musicalise the play was not without its considerable issues.

Firstly, the very nature of Shakespeare’s lines made it extremely difficult for Elaine Chan to set music to, simply because of the density of the language and the lack of apparent song structure to them.

Thus, it resulted in songs with unnaturally long lines and with rather irregular structures, which made for awkward listening, and which also made it difficult to create any distinctive musical refrains.

Another issue was the spotting of the songs, as there were scenes whereby the introduction of a song actually diluted the dramatic moment by delaying the action to make way for the song.

Lastly, the pronunciation of the lyrics when the actors were singing was often unclear, which resulted in a lot of the lyrics just flying over our heads.

And in view of the points above, I wonder if the idea to musicalise the play was in fact a good one or not.

Yes, it definitely helped to jazz things up a bit and bring a sense of novelty and pizazz to the proceedings, but while certain moments did benefit from songs, overall I felt that 18 songs was way too many.

Direction-wise, I felt the musical suffered from untidiness in a number of scenes, especially in the crypt scene at the end.

Nonetheless, this is a valiant attempt at a young and trendy rendition of “Romeo & Juliet”, blessed with a charming lead in Benjamin Kheng, and with a commendable supporting cast as well, particularly Aaron Khaled with his robust portrayal of Benvolio, and Jo Tan’s hilarious and quirky take on the Nurse.

This is certainly no West Side Story, but it’s a commendable attempt at bringing the Bard’s famous tragedy to the Glee generation.

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