“Emily goes Broadway”
Reviewer: Jocelyn Chng
Performance: 21 May 2016
Emily the Musical is an overhaul of Stella Kon’s play Emily of Emerald Hill. Unfortunately, the musical disappoints, largely due to poor character development, unwieldy songs, and an overarching failure to make the musical form work in favour of the compelling story of Emily, the quintessential Nonya Besar.
The beauty of the original play’s language, which uncannily captures the spoken language of Emily’s time and culture, has been all but lost. Granted, smatterings of Baba Malay are still used in the musical, including some of the lyrics – this is a welcome touch, but much of the spoken dialogue is in standard English, making the occasional insertions of Baba Malay disjunctive.
I also question the choice to focus overwhelmingly on the two relationships between mother and son, and wife and husband (this is probably one of the reasons for the overall cliché and repetitiveness). The part of the play showing how Emily learns to manage her sisters-in-law, and wins over her mother-in-law, has been almost entirely left out, which is a pity as this shows the strong and cunning side of the titular character. Emily’s jump, in the musical, from clueless fourteen-year-old bride to matriarch of the household is abrupt and confusing, as we do not see her gradual growth.
It is thus difficult to feel for her as a character.
Of course, some will argue that it is pointless to lament how different the musical is from the play, given that they are working in two different genres. As a musical, however, Emily the Musical proves to be ineffective.
The songs are trite and clichéd (a prime example is “Wild Bird”). This song’s premise is beautiful – the idea that one needs to balance between holding too tight or too loose a grip on those that one loves. However, the repetitive lyrics, coupled with the song’s appearance several times throughout the musical, belabour the point so much that it, ironically, feels constrictive. To make matters worse, Mei Choon, the fiancée of Emily’s grandson, explicitly articulates that the song is an analogy for Emily’s relationship with her eldest son, Richard, who commits suicide. This is unnecessary and even patronising; it should simply leave the audience to read that for themselves.
Another peeve is the song “House where my Father was Born”, also repeated several times by different characters. This song is structurally strange. Apart from to the regular rhythm of the lyrics, the nonexistent rhyme scheme leaves it sounding discordant and unfinished. Additionally, the musical can do without songs sung by secondary characters, such as Kheong and Diana (Emily’s husband and his mistress) – it is as if the creators feel obliged to write in a song for every performer, which only detracts further from Emily’s story.
Being the first incarnation of Emily in musical form, much work remains to be done before it can truly “go Broadway”.
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ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
EMILY THE MUSICAL by Musical Theatre Limited
20 – 22 May 2016
SOTA Studio Theatre
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Jocelyn Chng graduated from the Masters in International Performance Research programme, receiving a double degree from the Universities of Amsterdam, the Netherlands, and Tampere, Finland. She currently freelances and teaches at the LASALLE College of the Arts.