Hearing It From The Streets
Richard Lord finds that singers accept it all as part of the deal
By Richard Lord
Theatrically, this first quarter of 2007 closed out with two sprightly productions of celebrated street singers from two vastly different cultures and musical traditions. The Toy Factory's perky Titoudao cast a warm eye on the Hokkien Wayang that flourished in Singapore through the first three quarters of the 20th century, while Sing'theatre's No Regrets was, as its subtitle told us, "a tribute to Edith Piaf", who brought the songs of the Parisian streets to a world-wide audience.
Titoudao was actually a reprise of a show that ran here in 2000 and came away with a fistful of honours at the inaugural Life! Theatre Awards back in 2001. (Amongst those honours: Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Play of the Year, Best Original Script and Best Design.) In accepting one of the play's awards, author-director Goh Boon Teck cracked, "Where's my award for Best Director?".
Now, having seen the show (the original played shortly before I arrived in Singapore), I can see why Goh felt he had a claim as best director – but I strongly wonder why this script took best original script. This is not meant as a put-down; it just looks honestly at the measured merits of the piece. There is nothing exceptional about the Titoudao script; workman-like and reasonably effective in what it strives to do, it is rarely inspiring, never challenging and lacks any great insights.
The story is an old and all too familiar one: a talented young woman climbs out of poverty and the chains of sexism to earn herself a place of distinction in the arts. The art here is Hokkien street opera, or wayang. The story is actually that of Goh's own mother, Oon Ah Chiam, who was once a star of the wayang, and her most famous role, the eponymous Titoudao. As such, the play is an understandably affectionate homage that might have been stronger had it not been so infused with affection and respect.
This Titoudao briefly chronicles how Oon Ah Chiam, daughter of a woman who died young after bearing a large brood, had to struggle to survive – as both an independent woman and an artist. Her son the dramatist shows us the main outlines of this struggle and Oon's ultimate success. By chance, a somewhat rudderless Ah Chiam wanders into an audition for wayang opera and, almost out of desperation, starts singing. Bang! She impresses the others and her star is on the ascendency from there, a trajectory only occasionally interrupted by the tasks of wife and mother. The trajectory hits ground again when changing tastes make the Hokkien wayang as sought after as those men selling ice from trucks.
The script swings back and forth between key moments in Oon's life and key moments in the piece that brought her the most fame. I readily confess that I lack the cultural background to judge the Hokkien wayang sections. They seemed fine to me, but someone more immersed in the tradition might well take heated issue with me there. (It has been pointed out elsewhere that only one member of this cast actually speaks much Hokkien and that the presentation of the opera scenes lacked some of the spark of the old form.)
I am more able to judge the scenes from Madame Oon's life, but here I was not terribly impressed. As mentioned, the tentpole theme here is one on which quite a few plays, films and novels have been built. Titoudao's version of this theme is far from the most harrowing or moving ever offered up (see the second part of this article). Perhaps Goh was going too easily on the characters in the tale (especially his paternal grandmother) or perhaps he was just being completely faithful to the facts. Whatever the case may be, the biographical scenes move the tale along but do not move us in any remarkable way.
Nor were the connections between the scenes in the opera and those in Madame Oon's own life so strong or compelling that they made us see into the opera role more deeply, more poignantly. The parallels between Titoudao's story and Oon Ah Chiam's were either too obvious or not there at all. Given this fact, one can question why the author put so many scenes from the opera into this work. Showing us more scenes from the real life, or drawing out the existing scenes more profitably would certainly have been a better strategy.
The production itself was more deserving of praise. Director Goh served his authorial side admirably, keeping things moving along nicely, showing us the hectic pace and scrambled camaraderie of the Hokkien wayang world. Author Goh was also served nicely by set designer Wong Chee Wai, lighting designer, costume designer, and hair designer Ashley Lim. Yes, hair designer: in a show like this, which lavishly recaptures the heyday of Singapore street opera in the 50's and 60's, you have to give credit to all these people for helping to recreate the feel and the look of the times.
Goh was also served fairly well by his cast. The standouts were Pam Oei reprising the title role that brought her the Life! Theatre best actress award. Oei infused the role with energy, style, and chutzpah. A strange mix, but she handled it nicely.
The rest of the cast was mixed. Other than Oei in the title role, the assignments were handled in ensemble fashion (i.e., with each actor taking multiple roles). Fine performances in various capacities were turned in by Beatrice Chia-Richmond, Chua En-Lai, Alin Mosbit and Karen Tan. The other cast members handled some parts well, others not so well.
Which, come to that, might also serve as the best capsule judgement of the whole show: parts done well, others not quite as well.
You want to talk about your tough lives and rough-hewn biographies, you need look no further than Édith Piaf, who dominated French popular music for over two decades in the middle of the last century. Born out of wedlock; raised by grandmothers (the second time by a grandma who helped run a Normandy brothel and reared young Édith there); blind for a while in childhood before undergoing a miraculous cure at the shrine of a French Catholic saint; reportedly deaf a little bit later; survived a while by dabbling in street prostitution; later involved with a long line of lovers, the greatest of which she lost in a plane crash when she asked him to take the plane and not a ship. Let's see, then there was alcoholism, a serious auto crash, morphine addiction.... And those are just the headliners in a life that reads like the heavy-breathing blurb of pulp novel. (Alors, we haven't even mentioned how she tricked those German officers she was entertaining during the Occupation to get fake passports which allowed French prisoners to escape captivity and get back into the Resistance.)
Even scaled down, this would be the stuff of a great movie. (Amazingly, no one ever turned the full story into a film until French cineaste Olivier Dahan released his Piaf biopic earlier last year. Claude Lelouche had focused on the singer's affair with boxer Marcel Cerdan in a 1983 flick.) However, No Regrets, the inaugural production of the French-accented Sing'Theatre, made no real attempt to dramatise this material. Instead, it poured parts of the story into a scripted narrative (by Phil McConnell) that linked together a batch of the songs that made le Piaf so famous.
No Regrets was not just a tribute to Piaf, it was an exuberantly loving tribute. While the narrative did little whitewashing of her story, it was weighted to present everything as a celebration of her life, her career and the courage that she poured into her art. And the musical numbers showed why that art was indeed something to be celebrated.
Phil McConnell's text was efficient and informative. He ignored some of the most interesting accounts (such as her heroic service to the Resistance during the World War II occupation), but this was the right choice as they would have slowed the show down. For No Regrets was, finally, a musical revue rather than a stage biography and McConnell's text was fitting to its purpose: it did not draw much attention to itself, serving simply as background and connective tissue for the songs.
(Though perhaps it would have been better had McConnell added a few more of the clever grace notes in his script, such as noting that the Piaf repertoire included songs of innocence as well as songs of experience. Also, McConnell tossed in a few trite lines, such as "..and a love that's not perfect brings pain".)
But these slight quibbles are pretty much beside the point as this show was primarily a triumphant compendium of the songs of Piaf, performed by four singer-actresses who treated almost every number as a mini-drama so as to draw the most out of music and lyrics.
This strategy by Nathalie Ribette, the show's producer and director, was a sound one, I would say. In addition to a notable bio-piece by Britain's Pam Gems, there have been a number of one-woman shows (or largely one-women shows) about 'the Little Sparrow', but Ribette's decision to enlist four performers for this work was a bit of inspiration that deserves a buoyant nod of approval. This was especially true as the four women involved were so different in look and vocal quality.
Aurore, the youngest of the four (as well as the only French woman in the quartet), also had a look reminiscent of Piaf: slight of frame, vulnerable and pert, with eyes that suggested a great capacity for both hurt and recovery. The look was enhanced when Aurore appeared in the signature black, thin-strapped top of Piaf.
Emma Yong, in long black hair and sleek black gown, looked far too elegant and polished to readily suggest Piaf. She was more like those upper-class ladies Piaf was wont to laugh at. But she handled her singing assignments marvellously: Yong was able to capture that special quality of Piaf's voice that denoted a hard edge and a soft heart working together.
The singer Asha is full-bodied and full-throated: a kind of anti-Piaf who brought a powerful new interpretation and pizzazz to every song she was assigned, finding new contours and corners to recharge old standards.
Leigh McDonald came off as assured and seasoned; she seemed like the embodiment of the older Piaf – tested by life, wise and sad but not cynical. McDoanld's treatment of the songs suggested Piaf on the other side of youthful pain.
The show opened with the four ladies lined up across the stage singing 'La Vie en Rose' - two of them in the French original, the other two in English. The song itself is probably the most famous French number of the last 100 years, thanks largely to Piaf's original version.
It is certainly a logical place to start any Piaf songfest. It also introduced all four singers to us and the bilingual presentation of this classic set the tone for the rest of the show: some of the numbers were delivered in the original, others in English. Fussy purists might object to a show about Édith Piaf swinging into English versions of her songs, but the swing worked well a number of times, not the least with that opening number. Both the French and English versions 'La Vie en Rose' have their own distinct charms; it was a good decision to treat the audience to both.
Some of the translated songs worked quite well indeed. Best example: this show's version of 'The Three Bells' (fronted by a high-octane Asha, with the other three ladies as choir) added a gospel touch which proved much better than the original by Piaf, 'Les Trois Cloches', which almost chokes in its own thick, bittersweet syrup. One can also argue that the brisk ode to the open road, 'L'homme à la moto' ('the Man on the Motorcycle'), was better in this revved-up English model ('Black Trousers and Motorcycle Boots') than was the Piaf spin. Its exuberance certainly sounded and felt more authentic on the live stage.
But I would not give a nod to every decision to use the English edition here: 'C'est à Hambourg' lost something en anglais (especially as the original plays with polylingual elements anyway), 'La goualante du pauvre Jean' lost even more, despite the commendably energetic performance of all four singers, and 'L'accordéoniste' is a number that seems indelibly French and should speak no strange tongues. This sad but upbeat anthem moves along with such verve in the original, whereas it occasionally seems to lose its way in English translation.
And then there were translations that I am still not sure about. For instance, this show's version of 'I Shouldn't Care' sounded more New York of the Forties or early Fifties than Paris of that period. I quite liked it as it was served up here, but wondered where the original had slipped off to.
There was little to fault the four female singers on, though Leigh McDonald did occasionally have to stretch to reach certain effects. (But her take on 'All This I Know' was pushed out forcefully in a way that would have had Piaf herself smiling down in envious pride.)
Other musical highlights of the evening included Asha's beautiful rendition of 'Autumn Leaves', fully heterodox and wonderfully effective; Aurore's lovely 'Sous le ciel de Paris' and 'Mon Dieu' (which in its recorded version had always made me cringe at points); Emma Yong's intelligent take on 'Lovers For A Day"; and... Hell, I may go on for another page if I do not stop here. Let us just say that the four ladies were stellar and made this show the thorough success it was.
Phil McConnell's narration was handled by Hossan Leong, who would seem a most logical choice amongst local luminaries as he has a sure command of French. However, Hossan looked altogether too wholesome as our narrator here. For instance, he strolled across the stage a few times as if he were emceeing a charity show rather than sharing with us the story of a true icon, a great saintly sinner. ('Icon' is, of course, the most overused and misused word in Singapore these days, but with Piaf, it fits perfectly.)
Also, when Hossan slipped into the role of Yves Montand (one of Piaf's discoveries and young lovers) to play and sing 'Autumn Leaves', he could have gone into true Montand mode, with that trademark smile that often seemed about to curl into a sneer and perhaps a ( preferably unlit) cigarette dangling from the side of his mouth. (As it turns out, later in the show Hossan did bring in a slightly louche tone, à la Montand, which clearly helped his persona for this show while adding spice to the overall mélange.) More importantly, the role of narrator could have been integrated more into the piece, the one significant failing I could note in McConnell's script.
The five-piece on-stage band was also quite commendable, though there were some flaws here as well. For instance: late in the piece, Hossan and Emma Yong read an exchange of love letters between Piaf and Cerdan. This spoken interlude was a nice touch - except that the background music sometimes got too loud for the reading! Accordionist Daniel Blayo also got a little too enthusiastic on the number that bore his profession's name and drowned out some of Leigh McDonald's singing.
The band reached its finest moment in the grand finale, the number that gave its name to this show. 'No Regrets' or 'Non, je ne regrette rien' is an obvious way to close out Piaf's show, and almost every one (including the recent Olivier Dahan film) does. (There was also an encore number: a reprise of the bilingual 'La Vie en Rose'. ) But this production did something special with the Piaf perennial.
In this edition, the drums introduced a kind of martial or marching tone to the song. This was a bit surprising at first, but it worked well, introducing a fuller jolt of defiant courage that was altogether fitting to Piaf's anthem. The emphatic defiance was then taken by the cast and entire band and quickly revealed the greatness at the very heart of this song: it extols the tenacity of the human spirit. In this piece, which eventually replaced 'La vie en rose' as her trademark song, Piaf seems to be telling the world that despite all the pain, all the disappointment, all the costs, life is worth living; and living to the fullest. She regrets nothing, because everything that has happened to her is a part of life and here she agrees to accept it all as part of the deal.
It is a spirit that filled most of this splendid show – and was also sounded in a way in the Toy Factory's Titoudao. Both of these shows about the business of shows were telling us that song and performance are proofs of the ultimate value of our lives. Padam... padam.. padam.QLRS Vol. 7 No. 1 Jan 2008