Saturday, 16 May 2015

GEORGE AND THE MUSIC BOX / Bellepoque / Review

Esplanade Recital Studio
Thursday (14 May 2015)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 16 May 2015 with the title "Bedtime fun with stories and toys".

The name of Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) has been synonymous with light comic operettas in French and his single important opera The Tales Of Hoffmann. Credit goes to local musical theatre company Bellepoque for unearthing his Six Fables de la Fontaine, little known musical settings of children's tales by 17th century writer Jean de la Fontaine, neatly packaged as a one-act musical called George and the Music Box by playwright Susana Jose.

George is a restless young descendant of the writer, who needs his bedtime stories and toy companions to lull him into slumber. He has a somewhat dysfunctional relationship with his maman, quirkily portrayed and sung by Italian soprano Sabrina Zuber, who is also founder-director of Bellepoque. An element of abuse and oppression is hinted at by their absent father/husband, who gets his snarling voice in by way of director-pianist Robert Casteels. His peripheral but glowering presence, attired in concert garb and armed to the teeth with metronomes, was surely symbolic of discipline and over-regimentation.

Their dynamics made for some uneasy viewing, George's petulance caught perfectly by local tenor Jeremy Koh as a foil to his parents' schizophrenic comings and goings. With their berating and taunts “George is a naughty boy”, it would take some miracle if he does not grow up to become some French Amos Yee.

His consolations are the fables and his toy soldier (sung by tenor Leslie Tay), dancing doll (soprano Angela Cortez) and teddy bear (baritone Daniel Ho), who sing and act out his fantasies at bedtime. Despite none of them being native Francophones, their parts in sung French and spoken English came out credibly, aided by projected translations on a screen behind.

Some of the fables, like those of Aesop's with morals and cautionary dictums, would be familiar to many. These included La laitiere et le pot de lait (The Milkmaid and the Pot of Milk) and Le corbeau et le renard (The Crow and the Fox) which remind the listener “not to count chickens before they hatch” and “flattery feeds on the vain”. The latter and Le rat de ville et le rat des champs (The Town Rat and the Country Rat) cleverly highlighted hand puppets, and La cigale et la fourmi  (The Cricket and the Ant) utilised shadow play, to aid the narrative.

The music, as expected, was light and frothy, and as each fable lasted a matter of minutes, there was some padding up with highlights from The Tales of Hoffmann and La Vie Parisienne. These gave the singers ample opportunities for solos and ensemble work, which came out very well.

In case one thought that this was a production for children, it was decidedly not. The relatively late hour ensured that there were only a few youngsters in the audience, and stage director Sharon Joy Frese's scenarios were aimed mostly at adults, albeit those young at heart. Visual designer Caterina Minganti's children's bedroom, the painted clownish faces, maman's movements, and that man-sized and man-shaped comfort pillow named Doudou which George hugs in his deep stupor all had a touch of the creepy (think the horror movie genre) about them.

Little matter, as this was a largely enjoyable and musically satisfying outing fully consistent with Bellepoque's ethos to challenge the status quo through simple yet sophisticated departures, and to entertain. George and the Music Box, part of the European Season and Voilah! French Festival, plays for one final evening on Saturday, which would be well worth your time. 

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