Puzzling song cycle features catchy numbers but little emotional staying power.
It’s no surprise that love is and always has been a central theme across musicals, with characters expressing the nature of love at first sight and chance encounters, or the tragedy of breakups and unrequited pining through song. All of this is captured in Joey Contreras’ 2020 musical In Pieces, which follows eight individuals navigating life and love in modern New York City.
In a new staging to conclude Sing’theatre’s inaugural Musical Theatre Fringe Festival, In Pieces introduces the 7/8 Musical Collective to the public, using the musical as a platform to showcase its members talents and performance abilities. Calling it a musical however, is somewhat misleading, as In Pieces resembles more of a song cycle, bereft of a book and containing only a series of songs to be performed in sequence.
To start with, one needs to get the structural issues of In Pieces out of the way. Joey Contreras’ compositions are catchy and can be immensely enjoyed on an individual level, but problematic in that the songs tend to follow incredibly similar structures after listening to too many of them in one go, creating a degree of monotony. As much as it is a song cycle, the show might have benefitted from some spoken dialogue to weave it more intricately together, or break the string of pure singing. In Pieces is essentially a themed album in concert, but with an extremely thin storyline weaving it all together, can be hard to feel any sense of connection to. This is exacerbated by the fact that all of these characters are left unnamed, and with the time split across telling these eight individuals’ stories, they have almost no connection or history with each other beyond fleeting relationships we only ever catch glimpses of.
In terms of its staging, director Eleanor Tan has opted for a simple set-up, with just a few black platforms for cast members to play with levels, and the occasional chair. Its pared down approach suits the ‘fringe’ style of theatre, but very little creativity is actually seen with how the set is utilised to create more variation between numbers. While Seong Hui Xuan’s choreography is suitable enough for the numbers, such as including sassy ‘girl group’ type moves in “Like You Don’t Miss Me”, to decent chair-work in “Singing’ the Same Line”, the majority of the numbers follow a more park and bark style that, combined with the minimal set, also creates repetition and monotony. Especially considering that it was staged in the SOTA Studio Theatre, which comes with plenty of resources and capabilities compared to other venues, the minimal use of lighting and set seemed like a missed opportunity to really bring out clearer, more distinct characterisation and personalities.
Perhaps most unfortunate of all is how a massive three out of eight ensemble members were unable to perform during our run, and were instead replaced with their understudies. One is left to wonder what the original cast may have sounded like with its missing cast members, but the understudies featured, along with several other cast members, were unable to deliver vocally in their performances. This isn’t helped by faulty mics that prevented too many lyrics from being clearly heard, and messed with the overall appreciation of each song.
Even amidst this, there are several rising stars in the mix, in particular Preston Lim and Michelle Ler, who also have the most number of scenes together and the most cohesive storyline of the ensemble. Based on their songs, Preston and Michelle’s storyline seems to follow them as they first meet at a club (“Love Wildly”), to realising the toxicity in their relationship (“Get Up and Go”) to finally reconciling again (“I Could Fall”). The two of them are well matched in onstage chemistry and even if they aren’t given speaking lines, one can clearly see the trajectory of their relationship and changing emotions towards each other in the songs. Not to mention, both Preston and Michelle also possess powerful enough and alluring voices to hit the notes, and high energy in their performances matching the beat in every number. Every number they’re featured in is a highlight.
Ultimately, what In Pieces has is a lot of promise in its songs, but problems in its execution. Even if bookended by a strong opening and ending ensemble number (“Fork In The Road/You Never Know”), the more one watches, the more one realises that the majority of performers in this group work best not as soloists but as an ensemble, where the stronger performers can mask the weaker singers with their voices. As its title suggests, this is a show best enjoyed in pieces, with certain individual tracks that work better as a casual listen, rather than overwhelmingly all at once. And for this production in particular, with a fragmented cast and mismatch in ability, In Pieces might have left the 7/8 Musical Collective at a fraction of what they could have been.
Photo Credit: Poh Yu Khing
In Pieces played from 6th to 7th August 2022 at the SOTA Studio Theatre. More information available here
Musical Theatre Fringe Festival 2022 ran from 22nd July to 7th August 2022 across various venues. Tickets and more information available on their website.