Arts Review Singapore Theatre Wild Rice

★★★★☆ Review: The Monster In The Mirror by Bitesize Theatre Productions

Heartfelt, quintessentially Singaporean musical resonates with students and adults alike.

CategoryScore (out of 10)
Direction (Terrance Tan)8
Script (Terrance Tan)7
Performance (Sharon Sum, Andrea Alingalan, Sharon Mah, Estelle Fly, Ryan Ang, Zulfiqar Izzudin, Noah Yap, Seah Janice, Liew Ai Wen, Afiq Abdul, Clement Yeo)8
Music/Lyrics (Michelle Ler/Cheryl Chitty Tan)9
Choreography (Tan Rui Shan)9
Set Design (Petrina Dawn Tan)8
Multimedia Design (Genevieve Peck)8
Costume Design (Loo An Ni)8
Lighting Design (Alberta Wileo) 8
Sound Design (Daniel Wong)8
Total81/100 (78%)
Final Score:★★★★☆

Two years ago, Bitesize Theatrical Productions made their debut with The Monster In The Mirror, an original musical film created for the pandemic era that tackled teens and their relationship with cyberbullying, social media and self-image. Now, with restrictions lifted, that musical film finally gets the production it was intended for in the first place, with a full staging at Gateway Theatre.

Written and directed by Terrance Tan, The Monster In The Mirror follows Jane (Sharon Sum), an ordinary Secondary 4 student who loves to draw, and discuss anime/manga with best friend Rif (Zulfiqar Izzudin). But when she gets into a fight with the school’s it girl and influencer Hayley (Estelle Fly), her life comes tumbling down as she becomes ostracised at school, awakening a darker side to her – a literal monster in the mirror.

There’s something about live theatre that makes this show feel so much more alive than the film version, no matter how cleverly directed and edited. Brought to Gateway Theatre’s mainstage, The Monster In The Mirror is now allowed an intricately designed set, ambitious multimedia, and energetic choreography involving the entire cast. All of these elements come together to elevate an otherwise simple story into an entertaining production that keeps us engaged throughout the show.

To reflect Jane’s love for drawing, Petrina Dawn Tan’s design attempts to replicate that, with a set that resembles stacks of paper, showcasing casual doodles and pencil illustrations from a hobby artist, from doe-eyed anime characters, to simple dress designs. While the sheer amount of detail that goes into these designs is quite direct and occasionally distracting, the set effectively represents Jane’s mind and intrusive thoughts. Genevieve Peck’s multimedia design is also effectively woven in, at times allowing the drawings to become animated and come alive, while at others, literally showing filmed Instagram posts or other social media segments to allow audiences to understand what Jane is seeing on her phone, and immerse us in her emotions. Several stage tricks are also made possible thanks to Alberta Wileo’s lighting, assisting with the illusory effects to conceal and reveal elements for a surprise factor.

What works for The Monster In The Mirror and keeps it grounded is its genuinely relatable and sincere storyline. Ostensibly aimed at teens, the script places all its bets on Jane being a likeable and sympathetic character going on an intense journey of character development, and succeeds. Sharon Sum fits the role of Jane, and commits entirely to it, natural in her performance and coming across as a loveable klutz torn between her old life and riding the wave of her newfound popularity. When she opens her mouth to sing, it is clear and confident while still in character, and you feel for how overwhelmed she gets by all the pressure and misunderstanding from people around her. Later on, when she realises her mistakes and how she’s changed beyond recognition, there’s a clear growth and redemption arc that keeps you rooting for her no matter what.

While Jane is undoubtedly the protagonist of the show, just enough spotlight is given to the side characters to give them their own personality beyond existing purely to develop Jane. As Hayley, Estelle Fly clearly has fun as a mean girl influencer and nails the voice and physicality, while Ryan Ang, as boyfriend Aaron, works as a convincing potential love interest for Jane, just out of her league. Meanwhile, Sharon Mah settles into the role of Jane’s beer aunty mother easily, exhausted but trying her best, something any parent can relate to, and easily evoking our sympathy in the emotional number ‘Sink/Swim’. Zulfiqar Izzudin isn’t afraid to lean into his geeky side as Rif, while even Noah Yap, despite not being known for his theatre roles, is given the scene stealing role as Fairy God Delivery Beng, and lands the punchlines to all his jokes. These are helped by Loo An Ni’s mostly realistic costumes, such as Jane’s school uniform, or her very comfortable looking home clothes, while also getting the chance to design wilder outfits too, particularly for the ensemble during big numbers, or for Jane’s ‘influencer era’.

Despite how serious some of the issues raised by The Monster In The Mirror are, it’s also not afraid to have fun and whimsy with its portrayal of scenes. An online flame war between Jane and Hayley becomes a rap battle in an arena, while Jane’s makeover sequence sees the entire cast working tirelessly behind the scenes to give her a lightning-fast costume change. And the crowd-pleasing number ‘Fairy God Delivery Beng’, sees Noah Yap transform from delivery beng in green uniform, to siam diu techno star, with his own disco ball, and group of backup dancers in equally garish costumes dancing away. In essence, across the board, choreographer Tan Rui Shan has ensured that her cast are appropriately challenged in each scene, moving set pieces or performing impressive moves that are well synced-up, impressive but manageable for the entire ensemble.

Michelle Ler’s pop-driven soundtrack is also a joy to listen to, with catchy lyrics by Cheryl Chitty Tan. One hears clear inspiration from both Broadway and West End, alongside some quintessentially local references, that make it a unique soundtrack with plenty of replay value. Not only that, but both the tone and content of each song syncs well with the characters singing them, and even offers minor characters much-needed character development from a single song. The cast is well-suited for each song, and the music as a whole allows for each cast member a chance to show off their vocal capabilities and spotlight them.

In terms of the actual storyline, not much has changed from the film version, save for the staging elements and some cast members. While it does feel smoother in terms of flow, the same core problems with its script persist. The Monster, played by Andrea Alingalan, is meant to be the crux of the show, but still remains a somewhat confusing character. Intended to be a bizarro version of Jane and the representation of her unbridled id, Andrea does a fine job of her solo song ‘Monster’, seemingly manipulating and mimicking Jane.

However, it is never clear how exactly Jane is meant to deal with her. On one hand, the Monster clearly helps her gain confidence and popularity when she speaks her mind, but also hurts her relationships when she lashes out, which seems to contradict how her attempts to suppress the Monster cause her to become a worse person. By eventually ending up ‘accepting’ the Monster, it feels like too convenient and abstract an ending to very real issues, without fully tying up the loose ends.

In all, writer/director Terrance Tan has obviously put a lot of heart into this musical, and even with its flaws, The Monster In The Mirror is a strong debut whose creative team clearly shows a natural flair for the musical arts. While the framing and ending still needs work, this is nonetheless an impressive transition from film to stage, with a diverse showing of music genres and styles that prove the cast and creatives’ versatility. This is a show that takes the right cues from popular productions from abroad, and makes it their own, and ultimately, succeeds at delivering a relatable message of learning to take the time to love one’s self, monsters and all.

Photo Credit: Gateway Arts

The Monster In The Mirror plays from 12th to 27th May 2023 at Gateway Theatre. Tickets available here Listen to the soundtrack on Spotify here

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