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Pagoda Street


Pagoda Street
Reviewed by 1. Kenneth Lyen 2. Dwayne Lau

Music by: Declan Ee
Book and lyrics by: Declan Ee
Director: Declan Ee
Music Arranger and Director: Amir 'Rain' Masoh
Cast: Ling Tiankai, Eva Tan, Hadri Sopra, Rosalind Pho, Adrian Pillay, Valerie Loh, Anwar Zakaria
Dates: 4-6 August 2005
Venue: Esplanade Studio Theatre

1. Reviewed by Kenneth Lyen

Pagoda Street is a musical that walks along the middle of the road. No, it is not a musical with safe middle-of-the-road music. Rather, it is a musical that treads dangerously along the narrow gap between traffic flowing in opposite directions. It is a musical that is perched precariously between genres,  between farce and serious drama, between pop and classical music, between a musical and a play with music, between lead roles and ensemble cast, between an amateur and a professional production, between success and failure.

The musical shifts between farce and serious drama, and while you're laughing your guts out, you are slipped in a dose of hard-hitting axioms, and your laughter is stopped dead in its tracks. The music is pop but the arrangement is semi-classical which makes it a bit too heavy for comedy. Pagoda Street is a musical, but there are long stretches of dialogue without music, and it becomes a play with music. The story is about Asians and their cultures, but it is expressed through a Broadway art form. It is ensemble acting, but the distribution of lines is unequal, so that leads emerge. It is written and acted by amateurs but the production is almost professional. Should it be reviewed as a student production or a professional piece? I chose the latter.

What is remarkable is that the book, lyrics and music are all written by Declan Ee, a second year Singapore law student studying at University College, London. And if that were not enough, he also directed the show. In general, he succeeds admirably, and it may seem rather churlish of me to suggest that he is not equally proficient in all areas. So shoot me!
Pagoda Street is the story of two feuding shop-owners whose constant quarreling exasperates their landlord. One of the shop-owners is the despicable Ah K, a debt collector played by law student Ling Tiankai. Ah K is the worst type of racist and male chauvinist. He mistreats his long-suffering milquetoast girlfriend, Bambi, played by Eva Tan, who tolerates his meanness. She would like to marry Ah K, but he has never seen the need for it. Playing opposite them is a married couple, Khartik, a barber played by Adrian Pillay, and his wife Sangee, played by Valerie Loh. Their landlord is Paul, played by Hadri Sopra, whose finances the overseas studies of his girlfriend, Katherina, played by Rosalind Pho. Part narrator and part go-between is Musha, a caretaker, played by Anwar Zakaria.
At first the story seems to focus on Paul and his girlfriend Katherina. Initially she is a sweet gentle person. She goes overseas for her studies, and on her return, she has changed to become a more self-assured, scheming person. Paul remains naive and faithful to her, until he discovers her schemes. And up to this point the story is quite predictable. However, the ending is, at least for me, a slight surprise. I am misled to think that they are the main characters because they have been allocated the best songs.
What seemed initially to me to be a peripheral story, a subplot, is the relationship between Ah K and Bambi. However, as the story progresses, Ah K and Bambi take on center stage and upstage Paul and Katherina. In part this is because Ling Tiankai and Eva Tan are both better actors and singers than the rest. Moreover, in this musical, Ah K is the most interesting person with full character arc development. Somehow the shift in the center of gravity in leads was a bit disconcerting to me. This was reinforced during the curtain calls, when, Ah K and Bambi were not granted top recognition (i.e. final bow).
The music is good. The arrangement is interesting. Some of the songs are arranged in a minor key with strings and a heavy bass pulse, reminiscent of new age music. This gives a feeling that the musical is a tragedy. Hence it is a surprise that in fact the general tenor of the musical is in fact a farce. The arrangement is not helped by the fact that the instruments sounded very synthesized, and that the arranger went to town with cymbal sounds. 

I particularly like the songs It=s All Within You Now, Driving Me Nuts, Free, and Things You Ought to Know. The reprise of Things You Ought to Know is sung by Katherina and gives the impression that she would get her own way. Perhaps it should have been a duet, with Paul singing a counter-melody and words to explain his decision. When Ah K and Bambi sing, they drop their colloquial "Ah Beng, Ah Lien" accents, and suddenly become more sophisticated. Retaining Singlish in song needs working on.
The book is delightful and witty. My only comment is that the emotional beats need to be set up more carefully with deft foreshadowing and payoffs.
Overall, the musical succeeds. The characters are well drawn, the music is good, and the story compelling. Congratulations to Declan Ee and his team. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and hope that there will be many more musicals being written.

[A CD recording of the musical is available.]

6 August 2005


2. Reviewed by Dwayne Lau

Pagoda Street is a light-hearted musical with fantastic music.

However, I have a few comments to make.

The actors were mostly students and young-looking nonprofessionals. Unfortunately this was a problem, because the main character, played by Hadri Sopra, looked too young for the role. Furthermore his voice was not up to par, nor was his acting. This is a pity, as he had several solos early in the show.

A few singers stood out, and were very impressive. The guy playing the "Ah Beng", Ling Tiankai, and his girl friend "Bambi", Eva Tan, a whinny type of character, really stole the show and the audience's heart. They were stock characters that the audience could relate to. That worked very well, and they had a lot of stage presence.

The lighting was occasionally jarring and inappropriate. There were times when the characters would slip into a surreal mode and I felt that more imaginative lighting effects would have helped compliment the music and heighten the emotions. Moreover, the characters were not illuminated properly. It is a pity I have to dwell on the technical aspects, but I really felt that the equipment and technical resources could have been utilized much more effectively.

The singing was not as strong as I would have liked. Certain songs were pitched too high or too low for the singer's voice range, and that messed things up a little. The music was great, so when singing did not match up, it was a little disconcerting. I do not think I was the only one having this feeling because the person sitting beside me was also cringing at the same time.

Okay, now for the good bits. The script was lovely, with funny punch lines, rude racist (but harmless) insults. The story was simple but captivating, and made you want to stay to see the end. However, I really felt that there were moments that could have been milked more compellingly.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed myself. It is a feel good musical, and I recommend it highly.

4 August 2005