Fringe musical about putting on a fringe musical sets the stage for inaugural Musical Theatre Fringe Festival.
When it first premiered in 2004, [title of show] was considered wildly innovative and original for its time, taking the unlikely subject matter of making a musical about making a musical, and turning it into an offbeat and endearing production. Not only was it laugh-out-loud funny with its tongue-in-cheek, self-referential humour, but it was also a musical with a heart, chronicling the effort it takes to achieve one’s dreams.
Come 2022, and Sing’theatre have given [title of show] the honour of being the opening show for their inaugural Musical Theatre Fringe Festival. Metatheatrical to the highest degree, Jeff Bowens and Hunter Bell’s [title of show] chronicles their real life process of creating [title of show], as composer Jeff (TJ Taylor) and writer Hunter (Benjamin Koh) embark on a mission to craft a completely new musical for a new musical theatre festival before the deadline in three weeks. Roping in their friends – corporate worker Susan (Mina Kaye) and Broadway chorus liner Heidi (Vanessa Kee), the motley crew take use their musical to trace the artist’s struggle from conception to execution, before tackling the biggest question of all – what’s next?
Directed by cast member Mina Kaye, [title of show] adopts a humble, pared down presentation in its performance space at the Stamford Arts Centre black box. The backdrop comprises only of a single shelf of books, a corner for pianist Joanne Ho (also musical director) to play, and otherwise, just a couple of swivel chairs and additional props. This style of presentation perhaps, captures the joy of fringe theatre – that anything is possible in the confines of a black box, and that one does not need big set pieces or be confined to realism for the audience’s imagination to fill in the blanks.
At its heart, [title of show] is a charming gem of a show that firmly encapsulates the fringe theatre experience. From pondering over a theme, to dreaming about winning awards, to conflicting schedules and creating good chemistry, this is a musical that covers it all with its plethora of songs. Standout numbers include “Monkeys and Playbills”, which sees the cast sifting through a variety of old Playbills with increasingly ludicrous names to get inspiration, while “Die Vampire, Die!” is a fun song with the all-important message to cut out the toxicity in our lives stifling creative expression and encouraging self-doubt. Lyrically resonant and catchy, each of these numbers are relatable for any artist struggling to create.
In their staging of the show however, Sing’theatre’s cast seemed underprepared to tackle the material, in terms of capturing the right energy and nailing the delivery of the songs. Throughout the performance, the energy levels were low, and the chemistry inconsistent, with certain cast members mismatched to the demands of the songs and role they were assigned. One number in particular seems to have stumped the creative team – “An Original Musical”, which originally used a blaccent and without any actual black people in the cast, for obvious reasons, had to be changed. But the choice to use Singlish and various Hokkien expletives to replace it is both confusing and jarring, which completely distracts from the point of the song.
Perhaps one other jarring aspect of Sing’theatre’s rendition of [title of show] is how ‘performed’ it all feels. Certainly, making meta-references requires a degree of self-awareness and therefore distance from the show, but there is a lack of sincerity behind the performances that prevents us from ever fully buying into the scenes that we see onstage, without the cast fully committing to embodying these characters. The cast is carried by the witty jibes and smart script, but there are times the dated and hyperspecific references seem to be lost on the audience, especially when you realise [title of show] was conceptualised and first staged 18 years ago.
There are some strong moments from Mina Kaye and Vanessa Kee, in particular with “What Kind of Girl Is She?” and “Montage Part 2: Secondary Characters”, where the two show off how much their friendship has grown over the course of creating the show. However, the pre-existing flaws with [title of show]‘s narrative are also exacerbated by the overall lack of energy or enthusiasm felt from the cast during the show. Particularly once the group gets past the initial theatre festival, Jeff and Hunter find themselves uncertain of a direction, and turn their sights to desperately finding a way to bring the show to Broadway. Compared to the first half, the second ‘act’, feels like too sudden a tonal shift and too abrupt. This is worsened by how much more emotionally-wrought it is, putting all four characters’ friendship to the test, but the general lack of chemistry makes this hard to invest in or feel for, resulting in a show that begins to drag and outstay its welcome.
Perhaps [title of show]‘s appeal is best expressed in “Nine People’s Favourite Thing” – that there are some shows out there that work as indie success stories, capturing the hearts of a niche audience. And as far as fringe musicals go, [title of show] certainly captures the spirit of one, both in terms of its set-up and its content, and makes for the ideal opening performance for the inaugural Musical Theatre Fringe Festival in Singapore. One wishes however that this staging was better able to the same sense of genuine excitement and emotion that goes into it, and more of that magic and wonder of staging a fringe musical.
Photo Credit: Poh Yu Khing
[title of show] played from 23rd to 24th July 2022 at Stamford Arts Centre. More information available here
Musical Theatre Fringe Festival 2022 runs from 22nd July to 7th August 2022 across various venues. Tickets and more information available on their website.