Coco Movie Review

For inSing

COCO

Director : Lee Unkrich, Adrian Molina
Voice Cast : Gael García Bernal, Anthony Gonzalez, Benjamin Bratt, Renée Victor
Genre : Animation/Comedy/Musical
Run Time : 109 mins (+22 mins for Olaf’s Frozen Adventure)
Opens : 23 November 2017
Rating : PG

Coco-posterThe dead have never been more alive than in this animated fantasy-comedy-musical. Nobody’s suffering from even the slightest hint of rigor mortis, and the Land of the Dead is filled with dancing and singing. That’s not to say there isn’t drama afoot.

Miguel Rivera (Anthony Gonzalez) is a 12-year-old boy who dreams of being a musician, and who idolises the singer and film star Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), the most famous musician in the history of Mexico. There’s just one catch: music is forbidden from the Rivera household. This is because Miguel’s great-great-grandmother Mamá Imelda (Alanna Ubach) was married to a musician, who abandoned the family and broke her heart. Miguel’s great-grandmother Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), the oldest living member of the Rivera clan, has never quite recovered from this.

On the night of Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead celebration, the veil between this world and the next is at its thinnest. Miguel accidentally finds himself a visitor in the Land of the Dead where he meets his deceased relatives, who attempt to get Miguel safely home to the land of the living. Miguel befriends the roguish trickster Hector (Gael García Bernal), who says he can help Miguel cross back. It’s a family reunion between the living and the dead, but it’s also a race against time – if Miguel doesn’t make it back by sunrise, he will find himself a permanent resident in this ghostly realm.

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The Mexican tradition of Día de Muertos has figured in popular culture before, notably in the computer game Grim Fandango, the earlier animated film The Book of Life, and in the pre-titles sequence of the Bond movie Spectre. Día de Muertos embodies an uplifting attitude towards death that treats it as a part of life – death is still mourned, but perhaps is not as feared or as a dreaded as in other cultures.

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Coco does not appear to cherry-pick elements of Mexican culture to bolt on to a generic product. This is a film which is richly authentic and takes sheer delight in being so. While director Unkrich is white and was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Coco does not feel like the work of a curious outsider peering in through the window. The screenplay is credited to Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich, and this is a strong, fully-realised story. Molina was promoted to co-director partway through production. The central conceit is clever, the characters are distinctive but not overly gimmicky, and the jaw-dropping twist is sheer masterful storytelling.

This being a Pixar film, the visuals are a joy to behold. The animation team had to rethink how the characters move, since the skeletal denizens of the afterlife do not have the musculature which informs how flesh-and-blood human beings move. The designers have great fun devising the look of the Land of the Dead. It’s colourful and zany, but everything feels guided by rock-solid design principles, and not one detail seems superfluous.

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Directors of photography Matt Aspbury and Danielle Feinberg utilise warm lighting that makes the afterlife appear inviting and festive rather than foreboding, while keeping it otherworldly. The film features a variety of creatures known as Alebrije, which function as spirit guides. Mama Imelda’s Alebrije, a winged jaguar called Pepita, is especially striking. Miguel’s ‘Alebrije’ of sorts is a mangy-but-loveable stray dog named Dante – after Dante’s Inferno.

The voice actors impart believable verve, and are just heightened and theatrical enough without coming off as too over-the-top. Miguel is eminently loveable, and the character’s conflict between following his passion for music and the life his family dictates for him is one that is readily relatable.

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The Hector character is a likeable scamp who can fast-talk his way out of any jam, and who ‘knows a guy who knows a guy’. Once Hector is introduced, we think we’ve got him all figured out, since he fits that old archetype to a tee. Bernal lends the character surprising nuance, and as we learn more about him, there’s considerable depth to be found.

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Bratt has fun as the beloved matinee idol Ernesto de la Cruz. He sings the song “Remember Me”, but for the other songs, Ernesto’s singing voice is provided by Antonio Sol. The mini-mythology of the canon of songs that Ernesto has sung and movies he’s starred in provides valuable texture to the world.

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As in almost every culture, music figures heavily in Mexican traditions. Coco features songs written by Robert and Kristen Anderson-Lopez of Frozen fame, as well as Germaine Franco and co-screenwriter Molina. The film’s signature song “Remember Me” is a stirring, evocative number and it works as a crucial plot point as well as it does a standalone ballad.

Coco did not just move this reviewer to tears, it made him bawl. There’s power and enveloping warmth to this tale and the visually inventive way in which it’s told. Just as Inside Out was the launchpad for many a family discussion on mental health after watching the movie, Coco is a great way for kids to process death and how it is a part of life. Steeped in a fascinating culture and bringing that culture to mass audiences, Coco is an all-involving celebratory masterpiece.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

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Wind River movie review

For inSing

WIND RIVER

Director : Taylor Sheridan
Cast : Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Julia Jones, Kelsey Chow
Genre : Crime/Thriller/Mystery
Run Time : 108 mins
Opens : 23 November 2017
Rating : M18

Wind-River-posterWriter-director Taylor Sheridan takes audiences into the frozen wilds of Wyoming with this sombre mystery thriller. The setting: the Wind River Native American reservation. Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), a U.S. Fish and Wildlife service agent, comes across the body of 18-year-old Natalie Hanson (Kelsey Chow) in the snow. Natalie’s parents Martin (Gil Birmingham) and Annie (Althea Sam) are inconsolable. Natalie appears to have been raped and murdered, and rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives to assist Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene) with the investigation. Far outside her comfort zone, Jane must summon her wits and resourcefulness to catch the perpetrator and avenge Natalie’s death.

Sheridan is a former actor who has quickly become a sought-after screenwriter, penning Sicario and the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water. This time, he is directing in addition to writing. He has a knack for crime thrillers with a socially conscious bent, and with Wind River, Sheridan seeks to highlight how female Native American victims of murder or kidnapping often go unnoticed. This intense story unfolds against the beautiful desolation of the American northwest, with Park City, Utah doubling for Wyoming. The surroundings hammer home the bleakness of the story, emphasising the sense of being forgotten by society at large, far from the creature comforts of the city.

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Wind River is a slow burn, and requires the audience to stick with it before things heat up. This isn’t a movie that’s intended to be entertaining or even particularly thrilling, and as such, it might be difficult for some audiences to sit through. When it gets brutal, Wind River is uncompromising and raw. There is a scene of sexual violence which is difficult to stomach, and there are a few bloody shootouts. The title card at the beginning of the film stating the film is “inspired by true events” refers to not one specific incident, but thousands of stories about sexual assault of women on Native American reservations, where few outside the community notice their plight.

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This is one of Renner’s best performances, and the Cory Lambert character is a finely-realised hero. Renner’s turn is understated and strong, and he is convincing as a rugged guy who lives off the land, rifle in hand. The character could easily have come off as generic, especially since he has lived through a personal tragedy, but Renner commands the audience’s attention. He balances out the steeliness with quiet humanity – Cory is depicted as a devoted father to his young son Casey (Teo Briones). Cory comes across as someone who values human connection but who has been burned by past experiences, hence his detachedness. While Cory was married to a Native American woman, he will always be viewed as an outsider in the community.

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Olsen looks like she’s out of her depth, which is exactly what the role calls for. Jane Banner recalls Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer character in Sicario: the principled newcomer who is about to undergo a trial by fire. The dynamic that develops between Cory and Jane is satisfying to watch, in part because Cory acknowledges Jane’s strength and isn’t deliberately giving her a hard time about not knowing her way around the territory. It’s also fun to imagine that we’re watching Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch teaming up on their own adventure.

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Birmingham’s performance as the grieving father is honest and affecting, but the Native American characters take a backseat in a story that’s ostensibly about Native Americans. While the film consciously avoids the ‘white saviour’ narrative, it is a valid criticism that a movie about the injustices suffered by Native Americans has two white people as its protagonists, and focuses on Native Americans as a group rather than as individual characters.

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Wind River keeps in line with Sheridan’s penchant for thought-provoking films which aren’t necessarily all that exciting on their face, but which bring attention to social issues in a non-preachy manner. This is yet another auspicious indicator that Sheridan has a stellar career behind the camera ahead of him, but audiences should take note that Wind River is sometimes punishing, thanks to its painful subject matter.

RATING: 3.5 out of Stars

Jedd Jong

Musical Review: The Addams Family Musical

For inSing

THE ADDAMS FAMILY MUSICAL 

15 November to 3 December at the MediaCorp MES Theatre in Singapore

Even almost 80 years after they first graced the pages of The New Yorker, Charles Addams’ creation remains popular. There are no shortage of Wednesday Addamses every Halloween, and the instantly recognisable Victor Mizzy-composed theme song is wont to make everyone snap along. It seems like a no-brainer for the larger-than-life clan to take to the stage in musical form.

Gomez (Cameron Blakely), Morticia (Rebecca Thornhill) Addams and their children Wednesday (Carrie Hope Fletcher) and Pugsley (Grant McIntyre) live a blissfully off-kilter existence. A dilapidated mansion situated in Central Park that is haunted by their ancestors serves as home. In addition to the immediate family, we also meet Grandma (Valda Aviks), Gomez’s brother Fester (Cory English), zombie butler Lurch (Dickon Gough) and the disembodied hand Thing.

The Addams Family is about to be thrown into chaos, because Wednesday is intent on marrying her boyfriend Lucas Beineke (Oliver Ormson), a normal, all-American boy whose family is from Ohio. This sends Gomez into a panic, as he goes about trying to hide Wednesday’s plans from her mother. When Lucas and his parents Alice (Charlotte Page) and Mal (Dale Rapley) visit the Addamses for dinner, Wednesday pleads with her family to ‘act normal’. Alas, normal is but an illusion, as the prospective in-laws meet the peculiar Addamses and are subjected to all manner of unexplained goings-on.

The show features music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, with a book by Marshall Rickman and Rick Elice. The initial Broadway production garnered mixed to negative reviews, and has since been reworked for a U.S. and U.K. tour – this production is the same one that just toured the U.K., with several key cast changes.

This reviewer didn’t have the highest expectations of the musical – it seemed like Rocky Horror lite, with the Beinekes as ersatz versions of Brad and Janet. Several Addams Family stories have hinged on regular folk being foils to our mysterious and creepy heroes, so this isn’t particularly new territory. Then there’s the matter of the whole thing hinging on Wednesday’s romantic relationships – isn’t that precisely the kind of thing Wednesday wouldn’t be into?

However, this reviewer was completely won over. The show is a delight, consistently funny and tuneful with a committed cast. The libretto is littered with silly puns and cheeky double entendres, most of which land. The tonal balance between the goofy light-heartedness and the macabre and diabolical that is so crucial to this property is pulled off without a hitch.

Under the direction of Andrew Corcoran, the pit orchestra sounds much larger than its eight musicians, with many pulling double or triple duty – pianist Joel Nah also plays the accordion, for instance. For the most part, the songs are not the persistent ear-worms this reviewer was hoping for, and with a few numbers, their inspirations are a little too apparent – the first verse of “Secrets” is more or less a reworked “Poor Unfortunate Souls” from The Little Mermaid. However, the cast more than sells it.

Then, there’s the design. Diego Pitarch’s set is cleverly designed to look more expensive than it is. There are Gothic accents in the right places, and plenty of cascading fog. The Addamses are all instantly recgonisable, with Pitarch’s costume designs retaining signature elements while judiciously adding flourishes. For example, Wednesday has a corset, and her dress isn’t straight black but a dark bluish-green.

The most impressive costumes belong to the assorted spectral ancestors who comprise the show’s Greek chorus, which include a pirate, a matador, a tribal warrior, a Spanish Inquisitor, a Roman Emperor and a Tudor Queen. These reminded this reviewer of the work of Colleen Atwood, who is Tim Burton’s regular costume designer. They look sufficiently authentic, while also being heightened and fantastical.

 

Blakely is a charismatic Gomez – the actor has remarkable physical comedy chops, and looks like he’s relishing every moment. It’s a larger-than-life performance that includes dance moves that seem physically impossible for human legs to execute – or at the very least, improbable. As the henpecked head of the house, the audience empathizes with Gomez, while also rooting for him because he’s such a dedicated father and husband. His warm rendition of the bittersweet number “Happy/Sad”, which draws inspiration from Sondheim’s song in Company named “Sorry/Grateful” aims squarely at heartstrings.

Thornhill sticks to what works, dutifully conveying the traits that Morticia has always been identified with. She exudes a wonderfully sardonic air, and glides across the stage with an effortless slinkiness. Her solo number “Death is Just Around the Corner” exemplifies the show’s synthesis of dark humour and pastiche of classic Broadway musicals. Blakely and Thornhill’s big dance number, “Tango de Amor”, is absolutely mesmerising.

Carrie Hope Fletcher – that’s all we need to say. The boundlessly talented, immensely likeable theatre star/online personality/author is a truly winning Wednesday. She and Blakely sell the father-daughter bonding moments for all they’re worth – it’s the second time they’ve played father and daughter, since Fletcher played Éponine and Blakely played Thénardier.

Just watching how she purposefully strides across the stage, crossbow in hand, one can tell she completely gets the character. Carrie’s largely teenage female fanbase contributed significantly to the show’s success in the U.K. If you’re overly attached to Christina Ricci’s specific portrayal of Wednesday, hearing the character sing about how she loves all things cute and cuddly might be discordant, but the character still feels like Wednesday throughout.

With the makeup and costumes, the supporting cast members are all convincing as their respective Addams denizens. McIntyre hits the sweet spot of making Pugsley unsettling but also weirdly endearing, while Aviks gets several key opportunities to steal the show. English’s Fester is bizarre and likeable, just the way the character should be. The already-towering Dickon Gough gets some extra height out of his platform boots, and displays laudable physicality as the inarticulate Lurch.

Alas, the weak link in the cast seems to be Oliver Ormson. He has the look of a handsome all-American jock, but his voice is too reedy and doesn’t complement Fletcher’s well enough, with Fletcher singing rings around him. Still, the pair generates adequate chemistry, and “Crazier Than You” is the wild ride it should be.

Page is the surprise standout as Alice – her character goes through quite the dramatic arc, and her solo in the Act One closer “Full Disclosure” has resonant feminist undertones. Page gives the part her all, and Rapley complements her nicely as the buttoned-down conservative, midwestern dad.

The Addams Family Musical is far from the kookiest, most out-there depiction of Charles Addams’ beloved creation, but even with its conventional storyline, there’s enough dark humour and stylistic oomph to propel the show. It’s a devilishly good time for the whole family, if you don’t mind lying to your kids when they ask you to explain some of the bawdier jokes.

Jedd Jong

 

Next to Abnormal: The Addams Family Musical Press Call

For inSing

NEXT TO ABNORMAL: THE ADDAMS FAMILY MUSICAL PRESS CALL

inSing gets acquainted with the mysterious, spooky, and altogether ooky clan as the musical comes to Singapore

By Jedd Jong

One might not realise it at first, but The Addams Family has been around as long as Superman has. The first one-panel comic by cartoonist Charles Addams debuted in The New Yorker in 1938, the same year the Man of Steel first appeared. In the intervening years, the characters of Gomez, Morticia, Wednesday, Pugsley, Fester and Grandma Addams, along with Lurch, Cousin Itt and Thing, have become pop cultural icons. The Addams Family has spawned numerous TV and film adaptations, and is a touchstone of the goth subculture.

In this musical, the Addamses confront a family crisis: Wednesday (Carrie Hope Fletcher) has fallen in love, and is planning to marry a boy named Lucas Beineke (Oliver Ormson). The catch – Lucas is from a normal all-American family, hailing from Ohio. When patriarch Gomez (Cameron Blakely) discovers his daughter’s intentions, he endeavours to keep it a secret from his wife Morticia (Rebecca Thornhill), putting a strain on their hitherto blissful marriage.

The Addamses invite the Beinekes, including Lucas’ parents Alice (Charlotte Page) and Mal (Dale Rapley), over for dinner. The Beinekes baulk at the surfeit of strangeness they encounter once they step past the gates of the Addamses’ dilapidated mansion in the middle of Central Park. The Beinekes meet the Addamses, including Gomez’s brother Fester (Cory English), the 102-year-old Grandma (Valda Aviks) and the family’s towering, inarticulate butler Lurch (Dickon Gough). Of course, there’s also Wednesday’s brother Pugsley (Grant McIntyre), whose impulsive actions upon fearing that he will lose his sister to Lucas lead to chaos for the Addamses and Beinekes alike.

The Addamses are temporarily moving into MediaCorp’s MES Theatre in Singapore, following a successful and widely-acclaimed U.K. tour. The show, with music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and a libretto by Jersey Boys creators Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, had tryouts in Chicago in 2009, before opening on Broadway in 2010. This initial version received mixed-to-negative reviews, and has since been retooled with a reworked story and several changed songs for the North American tour, which began in 2011.

inSing was at the press call, where three of the show’s numbers were performed: “Death is Just Around the Corner”, in which Morticia reassures herself with the prospect of her eventual demise; “Pulled”, in which Wednesday tries to make sense of her affection towards Lucas and the change it’s had on her demeanour; and an excerpt from the dramatic Act 1 closing number “Full Disclosure”. We also got to witness the Ancestors in action – the show’s equivalent of a Greek chorus is a congress of five male and five female ghosts from Addams history past, including a pirate, a matador, a ballerina, a Tudor Queen and a Roman Emperor.

Cameron Blakely was just in Singapore on tour last year, playing the innkeeper Thénardier in Les Misérables. When asked to compare the way the two characters are as fathers, Blakely observed “Thénardier has no parenting skills whatsoever, he’s disastrous as a parent, whereas Gomez is the opposite. Unconditional love is what we strive for.”

For the role of Gomez, Blakely not only has to sing and dance, but do some swordfighting. “It’s so satisfying: he’s funny, romantic, serious, he’s got beautiful songs to sing,” Blakely said, adding that the role provides the opportunity to “free yourself completely: every little emotion you have, I can channel that through Gomez.”

Gomez’s beloved wife, the coolly seductive Morticia, is portrayed by Rebecca Thornhill. Thornhill, who is best known for playing Mrs. Wormwood in the musical Matilda, replaces Samantha Womack, who played Morticia in the U.K. tour. “The cast is so welcoming and so lovely. They’re just looking out for you all the time,” Thornhill enthused. She called the musical “a great piece” and the Morticia role “a great part,” saying she “lucked out” by clinching it.

Thornhill readily admits that she is unlike the elegant, coolly detached Morticia in real life. “I’m one of those people who goes across the floor and trips up before they get to the other side,” she said with a laugh. Putting on Morticia’s immediately recognisable ensemble helps Thornhill get into character. “When I get the makeup on, and the wig, it’s pretty different. Then for me, she’s there,” she revealed.

As in many other versions of The Addams Family, Morticia wields significant control over her husband, who has always been in her thrall. “I think she knows exactly how to drive Gomez insane, completely. You think it’s Gomez who’s the patriarch, but it’s Morticia who’s running the family,” Blakely observed.

For many audiences, Carrie Hope Fletcher, who plays the droll Wednesday, is the big draw. The 25-year-old is not only an accomplished theatre performer, but a popular YouTube celebrity and an author whose second book All That I Can See was published in July 2017. Fletcher’s turn as Éponine in Les Misérables earned her rave reviews – she had previously played Young Éponine as a child. Fletcher does ‘Watch Me Wednesdays videos, documenting the backstage goings-on and what the cast and crew get up to in their off hours.

Fletcher graciously posed with this reviewer’s custom action figure of Wednesday. Comparing herself to Wednesday, Fletcher said “she’s very feisty, she doesn’t let anyone get away with anything, and I think I’m good at standing up for myself. I’m very sure of who I am, as is Wednesday.” As a fan of the two films in which Christina Ricci played Wednesday, Fletcher actively pursued the part. “Wednesday is a dream role for any woman. She’s so crazy, and there are so few roles that let you be that crazy and let you run around with a crossbow shooting boys,” she quipped with a laugh, calling it “the best role ever”.

Fletcher’s life might seem absolutely charmed, but she is quick to remind fans that rejection is an unavoidable part of any actor’s existence. “Everyone’s who in this show probably went through ten reactions before they got this job,” she said, revealing that in the last three months, she herself had been turned down for six different roles. “It’s so easy to get discouraged, to get disheartened when you keep getting those rejections, but you just got to push forward, because when you do get that ‘yes’, it’s so worth it,” Fletcher explained.

The Addams Family happens to be in Singapore the same time The Sound of Music’s Von Trapp family is. When this writer asked Fletcher if the Addamses or the Von Trapps would win in a fight, she responded, without missing a beat, “The Addamses win hands-down. Wednesday’s got a cross-bow!” Fletcher imagined Wednesday killing the Von Trapp kids in descending order.

“Oh, we save the youngest for the last,” she deadpanned.

Playing Lucas, the object of Wednesday’s affections, is Oliver Ormson, who played Elder Price in The Book of Mormon. As the regular outsider, Lucas is the straight man in a show full of outlandish characters. “It was actually quite hard,” Ormson said about having to exercise the restraint to play the strait-laced, somewhat boring Lucas. “As an actor, it’s easy to lean over and try to be crazy as well.” Ormson is a comic book geek, and this reviewer had a brief conversation with the actor about the Justice League and Thor: Ragnarok movies after the interview.

Grandma is a scene-stealing character, and one that Valda Aviks has fun playing. “Being allowed to say whatever I think, I enjoy that, and that’s what Grandma does,” Aviks said. Aviks added that the cast was not given directives to pattern their performances after earlier film and TV incarnations of The Addams Family. “If anything, we looked at the cartoons, and tried to get a feeling of what Charles Addams had in his mind, and just got the idea that it was this kind of wonderful chaos and otherworldliness,” Aviks explained. “They are really strange characters but they live in the real world and they have real emotions,” she said of the Addamses.

Uncle Fester gets to break the fourth wall, addressing the audience and making pointed pop culture references. Fester also gets one of the show’s most bizarre moments, a number he which he serenades the unexpected someone – or something – he is in love with. Cory English has big shoes to fill, since the role was played by beloved English comedian/actor/presenter Les Dennis on the U.K. tour. “He’s not from this plane. He talks to the ancestors who are dead, and he also looks at the future,” English said of Fester. “He’s not just going to fall in love with a normal person, he’s going to fall in love with another object. It’s a different frequency, and I like to live there as well.”

Pugsley is typically depicted as being older than Wednesday, but the order of birth is switched around in the musical. Grant McIntyre’s somewhat unflattering bowl cut fringe isn’t a wig. “This was actually my haircut before I accepted the job. I’ve had this hairstyle for quite some time, actually,” McIntyre said. He joked that the hair cut was what got him the role, saying it “sealed the deal”. Speaking about Pugsley’s trouble-making behaviour in the show, McIntyre explained “because he is a child, he’s uninhibited and unaffected by the world, so he can do what he likes really, so that’s quite fun.”

Producers John Stalker and Katy Lipson spoke about assembling the tour, and paring the production down from the original Broadway version, which Stalker characterised as “over-produced” and “far too cumbersome”. “One of the tours in America toured in 21 trucks. We toured the UK with this in four,” Stalker proclaimed, giving a tip of the hat to scenic and costume designer Diego Pitarch, calling his work a “triumph” that “looks bigger than it actually is”.

Lipson, who produces the show through her company Aria Entertainment, pointed out the different musical styles reflected in the show’s songs: Wednesday and Lucas get a “contemporary pop beat” as the teen characters in the show, Fester’s songs draw on vaudeville tradition, while Gomez’s songs have a distinct Latin flavour. Morticia’s songs hark back to the tradition of showtunes by composers like Jerry Herman. The orchestra, led by musical director Andrew Corcoran, comprises “only eight musicians making such a big sound.”

Take your family to meet theirs from 15 November 3 December 2017. Tickets start from $65 (excluding $4 booking fee). Please visit  https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/caddams1217 for tickets.

 

 

 

Heroes United: Meet the Justice League

Heroes United: Meet the Justice League

Get to know the members of DC’s flagship cinematic superhero team

By Jedd Jong

In 1940, editor Sheldon Mayer and writer Gardner Fox created the first comic book superhero team: the Justice Society of America. Two decades later, after editor Julius Schwartz asked Fox to revisit the idea, Fox created the Justice League. The cover of The Brave and the Bold #28, depicting Green Lantern, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, the Flash and Martian Manhunter locked in battle with Starro the Conqueror, has become a defining image in the history of DC Comics.

47 years after that first appearance, the Justice League is finally coming to the big screen. In the intervening years, the team’s roster has expanded and changed, and various incarnations have appeared in comics, video games, animated and live-action TV shows and other media.

After a decade in development hell, during which Mad Max director George Miller was attached to direct a film called Justice League: Mortal, a Justice League film has come to fruition. This is the fifth instalment in the DC Extended Universe (DCEU), following Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad and Wonder Woman. Zack Snyder directed the film, with Joss Whedon taking over during post-production and reshoots after Snyder left the project due to a family tragedy.

At the end of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Superman sacrifices himself to defeat Doomsday. To ensure that Superman’s heroism is not in vain, Batman and Wonder Woman seek out superpowered ‘metahumans’ to join them in a fight to save the earth from alien invaders. Leading the enemy charge is Steppenwolf, Darkseid’s right hand man from the planet Apokolips. With an army of Parademons at his command, Steppenwolf will stop at nothing to recover three powerful artefacts from Apokolips known as Mother Boxes, which are hidden on earth.

Here’s what you need to know about our heroes, and the supervillain they must defeat, before watching Justice League.

#1: BRUCE WAYNE/BATMAN (Ben Affleck)

In Batman v Superman, we saw a bitter, vengeful Batman blinded by rage. It seems that he’s become a little friendlier after realising the error of his ways, endeavouring to work better with others and taking on the role of bankrolling the Justice League. “In Batman v Superman, he was at the end of his rope. But in Justice League he’s finding hope again,” Affleck revealed. For fans who took issue with the dour tone of Batman v Superman, take heart: Affleck says Justice League is “very different from the tenor of the last movie.” Describing this depiction of Batman being “much more traditional,” Affleck promised fans that Batman is “heroic”.

As is expected of the billionaire crime-fighter, Batman’s bringing more hardware to bear: we’ll get to see specialized vehicles such as the Nightcrawler mecha and the massive Flying Fox transport plane in action. Naturally, the Batmobile will make an appearance too, and can be deployed from the Flying Fox.

#2: DIANA PRINCE/WONDER WOMAN (Gal Gadot)

The Wonder Woman solo film was a big success for DC, with the consensus being that the Patty Jenkins-directed movie is the best entry in the DCEU so far. The Amazonian warrior is back, and things get personal when Steppenwolf threatens Wonder Woman’s mother Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and all her compatriots on the island of Themyscira. “She understands the enemy better than anyone else,” Gadot said, hinting that this might not be the Amazons’ first encounter with the marauding Parademons. In her civilian guise, Diana is an antiquities dealer and restorer of ancient artefacts. It is speculated that since the Wonder Woman film was such a hit, the character’s role would be significantly increased during reshoots, but Gadot clarified this, saying “Diana serves as the glue of the team. She finds moments to support every one of the team and makes them feel stronger or believe in themselves, but this is not a Wonder Woman movie.”

On how the character has evolved over the 100 years between the events depicted in her solo movie and the Justice League film, Gadot said the character is “wiser and more educated about the complexities of life and the world and mankind,” but the is still the same at heart, and that “she’s always full of compassion and warmth and love for everyone.” Everyone, we assume, except Steppenwolf and the Parademons. After all the ass-kicking Wonder Woman did in her solo film, fans can expect Diana to be in the thick of the action again – after all, Gadot was a combat instructor in the Israeli Defense Forces in real life.

#3: CLARK KENT/SUPERMAN (Henry Cavill)

As mentioned earlier, the events of Batman v Superman have left the world without its powerful alien protector. The very last frame of Batman v Superman showed the dirt Lois Lane (Amy Adams) sprinkled on Superman’s grave levitating for a moment, hinting at the character’s resurrection. The death and return of Superman was a long, involved ordeal that played over several months in the comics in the 90s. While Superman will presumably rise from the grave in Justice League since Cavill is appearing in the film, the exact circumstances and details surrounding Superman’s return are being kept secret. Cavill was contractually obligated to keep the moustache he had grown for Mission: Impossible 6 when he had to do reshoots on Justice League, so Superman’s facial hair had to be digitally removed.

While Cavill has kept mum about what role Superman plays in the Justice League film, he has acknowledged that the DCEU might have made a few missteps along the way. Cavill conceded that the DCEU “hasn’t necessarily worked,” adding “yes, it has made money but it has not been a critical success; it hasn’t given everyone that sensation which superheroes should give the viewer.” Saying the “right mistake has been made” and calling the Wonder Woman film “the first step in the right direction,” Cavill assured fans that with Justice League, the DCEU is on the right track.

#4: BARRY ALLEN/FLASH (Ezra Miller)

Like in several previous other media versions of the Justice League, the Flash looks set to be the film’s comic relief. While Barry Allen is typically depicted as a Central City crime scene investigator, Ezra Miller’s incarnation of Barry is a little younger, and is a student at Central City University. Some elements of Barry’s back-story will be familiar to fans of the ongoing Flash television series on the CW. A scene in the trailer shows Barry visiting his father Henry (Billy Crudup) in prison – in the TV show and in the comics, Henry was wrongly convicted for killing his wife Nora.

Miller found it easy to relate to the character. “I definitely was feeling like Barry, stepping into the big leagues with this incredible group of collaborators,” he said, adding that just like Barry, he was focused on “trying to do the best job [he] could do.” Discussing the process of putting on the elaborate, multi-segmented Flash armour, Miller joked “I would feel like a Victorian lady with my chambermaids. Sometimes I would ask them if they could brush my hair and ask me about the boys whom I fancied.” One of the iconic, but arguably somewhat silly, elements of the character from the Silver Age comics is that the Flash’s costume can fit into a ring he wears. This will not be carried over into the Justice League film. “We want to apologize to the fans who are mad about the ring thing,” Miller quipped, adding that “there’s gonna be other cool things” for fans to look forward to in the film.

#5: ARTHUR CURRY/AQUAMAN (Jason Momoa)

The half-human, half-Atlantean warrior king Aquaman is a character who’s been the butt of jokes for a long time, owing to his silly portrayal in the Super Friends cartoon. The character was given a makeover in the comics in the 90s, complete with a scraggly beard and a hook for a hand. Jason Momoa’s take on the character seems to be tough, but not without a fun side – the character’s mannerisms in the trailer have led some to call this version ‘Aqua-bro’.

Momoa said that when director Snyder brought him in to audition, he was asked to read Batman’s lines, but Affleck had already been cast as Batman. Momoa was taken aback to find out the role he was up for was Aquaman. “All I could think of was the traditional Aquaman from the comics – who is white and blond and wears the orange and green costume. I thought he had to be joking,” Momoa recalled. However, Snyder sold him on his vision of Aquaman as an outsider, someone who belongs to two worlds but doesn’t feel he fits in either one. Momoa related to this because he was born in Hawaii but grew up in Iowa, where he felt like an outsider. He considers it “such an honour” to play Aquaman because Hawaiian culture, like that of many islands, has water gods.

Amber Heard is playing Aquaman’s wife Mera, with Willem Dafoe as Atlantean scientific advisor Nuidis Vulko. Both actors will reprise their roles alongside Momoa in the Aquaman movie that swims into theatres in December 2018.

#6: VIC STONE/CYBORG (Ray Fisher)

The former college football star-turned cybernetically-enhanced superhero Cyborg was a character created as part of the Teen Titans team. In 2011’s New 52 reboot in the comics, the character was promoted to a founding member of the Justice League. In Batman v Superman, we see Vic’s father Silas Stone (Joe Morton) attempt to create a robot body for his son, who is near-death. The key component that successfully animates Cyborg seems to be a Mother Box from Apokolips.

Fisher made his feature film debut in Batman v Superman, clinching a highly sought-after role. We’ll only see part of Fisher’s face in the film, with the rest of the character being computer-generated. According to Fisher, the character “attempts to deal with everything he’s lost: his body, his mother, and the life he once knew.” Morton says that some tonal changes were made to the Cyborg character during reshoots, so maybe he will end up closer to the goofy character we know and love from the Teen Titans cartoon. Fisher hinted at Cyborg’s constantly-evolving abilities, saying “He has powers within him that even he isn’t yet aware of…whenever he encounters an issue that he’s not initially equipped to handle, his technology can transmogrify and immediately adapt to that situation.

#7: STEPPENWOLF (Ciarán Hinds)

The fledgling Justice League will face a formidable opponent: Steppenwolf, who hails from the planet Apokolips. In a deleted scene from Batman v Superman which was restored for the Ultimate Edition, Lex Luthor can be seen communicating with Steppenwolf, who appears in hologram form. In the comics, Steppenwolf is the uncle of Darkseid, the tyrannical ruler of Apokolips, and serves as Darkseid’s right-hand man. Steppenwolf commands an army of Parademons – these insectoid soldiers were also glimpsed in Batman v Superman, as the troops fighting alongside an evil Superman in the dystopian future of Batman’s ‘Knightmare’ vision. While many might point out that Darkseid is similar to Marvel’s Thanos, Darkseid’s first appearance in the comics precedes Thanos’ by two years.

Irish actor Hinds is portraying the role via motion capture, and sought advice from his fellow countryman Liam Neeson, who played the titular monster in A Monster Calls. Hinds said that he’s “never read any of those comic books as a kid”, and that the offer to play Steppenwolf came “out of the blue”. Hinds called the motion capture suit “very tight and embarrassing”. Hinds described Steppenwolf as “old, tired, still trying to get out of his own enslavement to Darkseid,” hinting that while Steppenwolf is vicious and destructive, there might be some reluctance to his villainy.

Movie Review: Justice League

For inSing

JUSTICE LEAGUE 

Director : Zack Snyder
Cast : Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot, Henry Cavill, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Ciarán Hinds, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, J.K. Simmons, Connie Nielsen
Genre : Action/Adventure/Comics
Run Time : 119 mins
Opens : 17 November 2017
Rating : PG

It’s time to join the big leagues: five years after Marvel’s Avengers team made their big-screen debut, the Justice League arrives in cinemas. While Wonder Woman was seen as reinvigorating the DC Extended Universe, it’s Justice League that is deemed the make-or-break moment for the franchise. Read on to see how it stacks up.

After the events of Batman v Superman, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) are gathering a team of superheroes to fend off an impending alien threat. The recruits to this group include college student/speedster Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), the ocean-dwelling Atlantean Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and a cybernetically-enhanced former college football star Vic Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher).

This team must face off against Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds), a world-destroying alien warlord who hails from the planet Apokolips and answers to the tyrannical Darkseid. Under Steppenwolf’s command is an army of insectoid warriors known as Parademons. Now more than ever, earth needs Clark Kent/Superman (Henry Cavill), who died at the end of Batman v Superman. The heroes must put on a united front as earth faces its doom.

There’s a great deal riding on Justice League, and Warner Bros. desperately needs this one to go over well. The film suffered its share of setbacks during production: director Zack Snyder withdrew from the film after a personal tragedy, with Joss Whedon stepping in to oversee reshoots and post-production. Then, rumour has it that the film’s 170-minute runtime was pared down to 119 minutes, under a mandate from Warner Bros. boss Kevin Tsujihara.

Justice League has a shape, but the seams are readily visible. At times, it feels choppy and fragmented, and it’s clear that quite a bit has been left on the cutting room floor. On the whole, it is a gratifying experience: there are moments that will induce cheers, and the action sequences are fun. The various abilities of the League’s members are realised in creative ways, and the visual effects work is more polished than in some previous DCEU entries, some dodgy moustache removal work notwithstanding.

The overall plot beats are familiar, and Justice League bears passing similarities to numerous recent comic book movies. There’s a motley crew with clashing personalities and astounding powers banding together to defeat the otherworldly threat of a faceless army led by a fearsome warlord.

Bits of backstory for each of the new characters are parcelled out, and one can notice the film trying to shuffle along from point A to point B. Tonally, there are some jokes that stick out as being a little unsubtle, but in trying to course-correct from being self-serious and morose to a little lighter on its feet, Justice League takes a few steps in the right direction.

 

Batman is no longer the irrational, weary, rage-driven character seen in Batman v Superman, but it’s to Affleck’s credit that it doesn’t feel like someone altogether different was swapped in. We see how the events of the earlier film have changed Batman’s attitudes, and witness him attempting to be a team player. It’s a bit of a shame that Affleck seems to be looking for an out, since he’s growing into the role nicely. He’s also got cool vehicles including the tank-like mecha Knightcrawler and the Flying Fox transport plane, which should sell a healthy number of toys. Geek gripe – the ears on the cowl look too similar to those of Nite-Owl’s from Watchmen.

Wonder Woman’s characterisation remains consistent, and Gadot continues to embody her badass side in addition to her empathy and wisdom. In many ways, Diana is the most mature of the team, who can sometimes behave like children. There are many opportunities to showcase the character’s abilities, and the introductory scene in which she foils a terrorist bombing is a stylish and exciting sequence. The dynamic that develops between Batman and Wonder Woman is the closest the movie comes to being poignant, and this reviewer wishes it were developed further.

The Flash will be the runaway favourite for many viewers. Miller eagerly conveys the character’s wide-eyed awe and just how thrilled he is to be part of the team. He’s the rookie and, since he’s prone to geeking out, is the audience-identification character. Barry, a budding criminologist, also appears to be a fan of Rick and Morty and the South Korean pop group Black Pink. He provides the lion’s share of the film’s comic relief, and never comes off as insufferably obnoxious.

Momoa’s iteration of Aquaman has been termed ‘Aquabro’ by some. While the irreverent jock personality isn’t exactly in line with how Aquaman has been portrayed in the comics, it works within the context of the larger team. It seems like more scenes set in Atlantis were cut – we only get a fleeting glimpse of Amber Heard as Mera, and Willem Dafoe as Nuidis Vulko is altogether absent.

Fisher’s Cyborg might be the most angst-ridden character, as he struggles to come to terms with his newfound existence as part man, mostly machine. He gets a RoboCop-style character arc. If the version you’re most familiar with is from the Teen Titans cartoon, this is a significant departure from that. He does eventually get to utter a fan-favourite catchphrase, though.

Steppenwolf’s design works well and Ciarán Hinds’ expressions contribute to a fairly mean-looking character, but he’s just never that scary. Steppenwolf is largely generic and is close in characterisation and his function in the plot to Ronan the Accuser from Guardians of the Galaxy. It’s a threat that never quite takes hold, despite multiple attempts to explain just how fearsome the character is.

Jeremy Irons’ sardonic Alfred cracks a few jokes, while J.K. Simmons’ Commissioner Gordon seems to have stepped straight off the comic book page. We can’t wait to see what he does with the role in future films.

When Whedon replaced Snyder, he dropped Junkie XL as composer, replacing him with Danny Elfman. It is a delight to hear Elfman’s Batman theme from the 1989 Batman movie in the theatre again. There are also hints of John Williams’ original Superman theme.

While Justice League has its issues and feels severely truncated, it has enough energy and verve to compensate for its shortcomings. Long-time fans of these characters will get at least a tiny bit of a thrill out of seeing them together on the big screen, and if you’ve complained about how gloomy earlier DCEU entries were, this might be more your speed.

Oh – stick around for a fun mid-credits scene, and a spectacular post-credits stinger that left this reviewer gobsmacked.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Musical Review: The Sound of Music (2017, Singapore)

For inSing

THE SOUND OF MUSIC 

7 November to 2 December 2017 at the MasterCard Theatres in Marina Bay Sands, Singapore 

It’s a musical theatre staple that has resonated across the decades: The Sound of Music returns to the MasterCard Theatres at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, having last played here in 2014. With its memorable songs, heart-warming romance, adorable children and themes of standing up for one’s principles, it’s no surprise that the show has staying power.

The Sound of Music is a fictionalisation of The Trapp Family Singers, the autobiography of the real-life Maria von Trapp. With music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein and a libretto by Howard Lindsay and Russel Crouse, the musical debuted in 1959. The Sound of Music skyrocketed into the public consciousness with a blockbuster film adaptation released in 1965. Directed by Robert Wise and starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, the film won five Academy Awards.

It is 1938, and young Maria (Carmen Pretorius), who is studying to be a nun at Nonnberg Abbey, is sent to be a governess to the seven children of Naval Captain Georg Von Trapp (Nicholas Maude). The Captain has become distant to his children after the death of his wife, and implements strict discipline in the household. Maria baulks at this, and decides to teach the children music.

While the Captain is initially resistant to Maria’s methods, they eventually warm to each other and romance blossoms. However, the Captain is about to marry the wealthy Elsa Schraeder (Haylea Heyns). When the Captain and Elsa’s mutual friend Max Detweiler (Jonathan Taylor) hears the children sing, he is impressed and enters the family of singers into the upcoming Salzburg music festival. With the impending annexation of Austria by the Third Reich, the Captain receives an offer to join the Navy in Berlin. The family must make a stand and escape the Nazis before it’s too late.

With the widespread adoration it’s received, The Sound of Music has also garnered its share of criticism. The show is typically decried and treacly and overly-sentimental, and makes large deviations from the true story. As Agathe (the real-life analogue of Liesl), the oldest Von Trapp daughter put it, “It’s a very nice story but it’s not our story. If they hadn’t used our name I probably would have enjoyed it.”

That said, the show’s charm is irresistible, and anyone who’s a fan of the film should experience it live. There’s something quaint about its old-fashioned nature, and yet the staging is anything but stodgy and dull. This production was originally staged at the London Palladium in 2006, and is co-produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Under the baton of musical director Kevin Kraak, the orchestra sounds marvellous, achieving the illusion that the ensemble is far larger than it is. This production uses the original orchestration by Robert Russell Bennett from the 1959 show.

The set and costume designs by Rob Jones are sumptuous, and the stage seamlessly transforms from Nonnberg Alley with its arched hallways into the stately Von Trapp mansion with its grand staircase and chandelier. Mark Henderson’s lighting design is naturalistic, but gently heightened in a painterly way when required. The thunderstorm sequence is especially realistic. The choreography by Arlene Phillips of Strictly Come Dancing fame is playfully dynamic without being overly busy.

Pretorius is a sprightly, energetic Maria, effectively conveying the free-spirited liveliness that is one of the character’s defining traits. When the production last came to Singapore, she played the oldest daughter Liesl. The South African actress’ vocal inflection seems patterned after Julie Andrews, but does not come off as mimicry. There’s a pleasant lightness and subtle strength to her voice, and there is precision to her movements which doesn’t sacrifice the feeling of spontaneity. She makes for a Maria who is eminently loveable and easy to root for.

Maude is dashing and refined as the Captain. This is role that’s all too easy to play as overly stiff, but Maude’s interpretation of the role is anything but. The warmth beneath the stern exterior is readily visible, and his rendition of “Edelweiss” is appropriately tender.

Janelle Visagie previously played the Mother Abbess when the show ran here in 2014, and proves to be a perfect match for the role. She imbues “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” with the ideal balance of solemnness and inspirational uplift, and her soaring performance of that number, which closes out Act 1, is a highlight of the show.

The six younger Von Trapp children are played by locally-based actors who were cast via an audition held in May. 18 children share the six roles. The young performers are impressive, and are no doubt a big draw for audiences. It’s hard to pick a favourite, but this reviewer is especially fond of Max Makatsaria as Kurt. Emily Kitamura is cute as a button as the youngest child, Gretl. In our performance, Friedrich was played by Louis Beatty, Louisa by Samantha Lee, Brigitta by Sasha Suhandinata and Marta by Chloe Schueler.

The one casting choice that didn’t quite work for this reviewer was Zoe Beavon as Liesl. It might seem like a superficial complaint, but Beavon is significantly taller than Pretorius, and appears older than Michael McMeeking, who plays Liesl’s boyfriend Rolf. She isn’t as believable as a 16-year-old as the child actors are playing the corresponding ages of the other Von Trapp kids. This ordinarily wouldn’t be too big of an issue, but the song “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” does call attention to it.

Jonathan Taylor and Haylea Heyns inhabit the roles of Max Detweiler and Baroness Schareder splendidly. These supporting characters are easy to play too broadly, and they keep their performances the right level of comedic.

There’s nary a dull moment in the show and it feels much shorter than its running time, but the story also feels rushed. Everything moves so quickly, and the relationship between Maria and the Captain doesn’t get much room to breathe. The Von Trapp children also go from being indifferent towards to Maria to absolutely adoring her in a matter of minutes. The show downplays the politics, and as such it is somewhat jarring when Swastika-emblazoned banners are unfurled, and Nazi Stormtroopers are standing onstage.

Those attached to the film version should just be prepared that since the movie made some changes from the stage show, some songs appear at different places that one would be familiar with: “My Favourite Things” is a duet between the Mother Abbess and Maria before she leaves the abbey, and “The Lonely Goatherd” is sung during the thunderstorm. “How Can Love Survive” and “No Way to Stop It” were excised from the film, and show up here. “Something Good”, which in the film replaced “An Ordinary Couple”, remains.

The Sound of Music has become an easy target for cynics, but for those of us whose hearts haven’t calcified into a blackened, angry mass, there’s plenty here to enjoy. With strong lead performances and plenty of talent on display from locally-based kids, the performances complement the well-appointed set. The timeless music continues to be stirring and powerful, and as one leaves the theatre, one might feel a twinge of sadness that it’s time to say “so long, farewell”.

The Sound of Music is an Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Ian and The Really Useful Group production, presented by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, BASE Entertainment Asia, Sliding Doors Entertainment and David Atkins Enterprises. The show runs from 7 November to 2 December 2017 at the MasterCard Theatres in Marina Bay Sands, Sinapore. Ticket prices start from $65 (excluding the $4 booking fee per ticket). Visit www.MarinaBaySands.com/ticketing or www.sistic.com.sg to purchase tickets.

By Jedd Jong

Bringing the hills to life: The Sound of Music press call

For inSing

BRINGING THE HILLS TO LIFE: THE SOUND OF MUSIC PRESS CALL

inSing gets a preview of the legendary musical as it returns to Singapore

By Jedd Jong

The Sound of Music is among the most enduring and iconic stage musicals ever created, and it has returned to Singapore. inSing was at the Marina Bay Sands Theatre to attend the press call for The Sound of Music, where the show last played in 2014.

The Sound of Music is a fictionalisation of The Story of the Trapp Family Singers, the real-life Maria Von Trapp’s autobiography. The story revolves around Maria Rainier, a free-spirited former nun who is hired as the governess to an unyielding Naval captain’s seven children. The children, whom she teaches to sing, eventually warm to Maria, and the family becomes known as a singing group. However, their idyllic existence is threatened by the onset of World War II, and the family must plot their escape from the Nazis, who have ordered the Von Trapps to perform for them.

The team of composer Richard Rodgers and lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II created such memorable songs as “Climb Ev’ry Mountain”, “My Favourite Things”, “Edelweiss” and “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”, many of which have become standards within the showtune genre. The show debuted in 1959 and was adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 1965. The film, starring Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer and directed by Robert Wise, recently celebrated its 50th anniversary.

This iteration of the show was first staged in 2006 at the London Palladium, produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber. An agreement between Lloyd Webber’s The Really Useful Group and the Rodgers and Hammerstein estates means that this is the only production that is currently granted permission to use the songs that appear in the film version.

Associate director Frank Thompson has been with the show since 2006, and was the Resident Director of The Sound of Music when it was performed at the London Palladium and for its subsequent UK tour. Thompson remarked that while most touring productions of musicals are pared down from the original staging, The Sound of Music seems to have gotten bigger – seven-eight shipping crates are required to transport the show’s equipment, sets, backdrops, props and costumes from country to country.

Carmen Pretorius and Nicholas Maude

“You can’t get anything better than live dialogue and live music and the experience through that tangible medium,” Thompson said, when asked why audiences should come to see the show live. “Sometimes we are so attached to technology that we don’t feel it as much.”

The lead role of Maria is played by South African performer Carmen Pretorius, who previously portrayed the oldest Von Trapp daughter Liesl when the show last came to Singapore. “Artistically, it’s a very big step up,” Pretorius said of her ‘promotion’. “It’s a challenge, it’s exciting and it keeps me on my toes. Liesl was a little bit less challenging. It’s been a very exciting journey and I’ve gotten to know the show very well from two different angles.”

Pretorius described the process of breathing life into the show performance after performance – the show runs eight times a week. “The key for any good actor is to be in the moment. Although a lot of things are set, we do have to play off each other, and that’s what keeps the magic alive.” Pretorius added that it is key to remember that each audience is comprised of completely different people, and many might be seeing Maria melt the Captain’s heart for the first time.

“It’s very easy to melt when you look at Carmen, you just do that,” said Nicholas Maude, who plays Captain Von Trapp.

“It’s very easy to melt when you look at Nick,” Pretorius replied, the actors demonstrating their chemistry.

Being in a touring production of a musical is tough on the body. Pretorius’ secret weapon: ginger. In addition to drinking ginger tea, Pretorius “bites ginger like an apple”. She also swears by Pei Pa Koa, the traditional Chinese throat remedy.

On the children in the cast, Maude remarked ““They’re so professional and it’s inspiring,” adding that he would not have been as confident and professional at that age. “When I was younger, I was gawky and insecure. They’re so good, they’re so talented, and they really give on stage.”

Pretorius agreed, saying that working with the young cast members reminds her of when she was starting out as a theatre performer. “You forget being that little kid going to your first audition and having big dreams about being on stage. You can see that happening on their faces and it reminds you of your own journey; we all relate to that.”

“They’re going to teach me about Snapchat,” Maude quipped.

Left to right: Emily Riddle, Jane Callista, Chloe Choo, Alfie Hodgson, Sophea Pennington, Mateo Fuentes, Zoe Beavon

The role of Liesl is played throughout the tour by Zoe Beavon, but the younger Von Trapp children are cast with local child actors from each city that the tour visits. A total of 18 children share the six roles, and we met some of them at the press call.

Being a part of the production is an educational experience for these budding theatre actors, many of whom are already accomplished despite their age. “We get to learn all the theatre rules and get to meet all these incredible people and professionals,” said Jane Callista, who plays Marta. Callista was a finalist on The Voices Kids Indonesia in 2016.

From left: Jane Callista, Frank Thompson, Chloe Choo

Chloe Choo, who plays Brigitta, is no stranger to the stage. She recently played Small Allison in Pangdemonium’s staging of the musical Fun Home. The 11-year-old Choo is no stranger to The Sound of Music either, having played the role of Gretl in 2014. Thompson joked that when the show returns in 2080, Choo will play Maria.

13-year-old Mateo Fuentes, who plays Friedrich, said that the cast has become “like [his] family”. Being in the show has given him the opportunity “to learn with people who come from all around the world.”

From left: Mateo Fuentes, Sophea Pennington, Alfie Hodgson, Chloe Choo, Jane Callista, Emily Riddle

The Sound of Music was the first musical that Emily Riddle, who plays the littlest Von Trapp child, watch. When asked if she is living her dream, she replied empathically “I am!”

“I think the show is very beautiful and I think it touches many people’s hearts,” Sophea Pennington, who plays Louisa, remarked. Pennington’s family moved from Australia to Singapore four years ago, and she has played several leading roles, including Annie in the Stamford American International School production of the musical. “It really does bring people together,” she said of the show.

Alfie Hodgson, who plays Kurt, said he enjoys the experience of “having a professional job and meeting all the cast”. Hodgson has acted on the MBS Theatre stage before, in 2016’s A Right Rubbish Christmas.

Janelle Visagie

Janelle Visagie reprises the role of the Mother Abbess, which she also played in 2014. Like Pretorius, she is from South Africa, and has performed in multiple productions for the Cape Town Opera, including Madam ButterflyDon Giovanni and Rigoletto. Viasagie laughed heartily when this writer suggested that the Mother Abbess is like Maria’s Yoda. “Carmen and I are really good friends in real life, and I am a little bit older than her, so it makes it a bit easier to go into that role of being a caregiver type,” she said of playing the role of mentor and spiritual guide.

What Viasagie admires most about Singapore might be surprising – it’s the way we manage our water resources. “The way Singapore uses their water, reuse and recycle, it’s not a tourist thing, but for me it’s one of the most amazing things about Singapore, how effective they are. Everything is so efficient and clean,” she said.

The Sound of Music is an Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Ian and The Really Useful Group production, presented by Lunchbox Theatrical Productions, BASE Entertainment Asia, Sliding Doors Entertainment and David Atkins Enterprises. The show runs from 7 November to 2 December 2017 at the MasterCard Theatres in Marina Bay Sands, Sinapore. Ticket prices start from $65 (excluding the $4 booking fee per ticket). Visit www.MarinaBaySands.com/ticketing or www.sistic.com.sg to purchase tickets.

Victoria and Abdul movie review

For inSing

VICTORIA AND ABDUL 

Director : Stephen Frears
Cast : Judi Dench, Ali Faizal, Eddie Izzard, Adeel Akhtar, Olivia Williams, Tim Pigott-Smith
Genre : Drama/Historical
Run Time : 102 mins
Opens : 9 November 2017
Rating : PG

Victoria-and-Abdul-poster20 years ago, Dame Judi Dench played Queen Victoria in Mrs. Brown. That film was about the controversial relationship between Victoria and her servant John Brown, and now, Dench returns to the role in a film about another controversial relationship between Victoria and a servant, but one of a different stripe.

It is 1887, the year of Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Abdul Karim (Ali Faizal) and Mohammed Buksh (Adeel Akhtar) are chosen to travel from India to England to present Victoria with a ceremonial coin known as a mohur. Abdul catches Victoria’s attention, and she hires him as an attendant. Abdul begins to teach Victoria Urdu, and becomes Victoria’s ‘munshi’, or teacher. Victoria’s affinity for Abdul, an Indian Muslim, earns the ire of the royal household and the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon). Victoria’s son Bertie (Eddie Izzard), the future King Edward VII, develops a hatred for and jealousy of Abdul. As the royal household plots to have Abdul removed, the relationship between Victoria and Abdul transcends that of a Queen and her servant. The former prison clerk finds himself becoming a confidant to Victoria, the Empress of India, in her waning years.

Victoria and Abdul is directed by Stephen Frears, who has helmed awards season prestige films including The QueenPhilomena and Florence Foster JenkinsBilly Elliot writer Lee Hall adapted the screenplay from Shrabani Basu’s book, also titled Victoria and Abdul. The film opens with a tongue-in-cheek declaration that it is “based on a true story…mostly”. The film endeavours to be funny and heart-warming, and it often is, but many have taken issue with its depiction of historical events, which have been termed revisionist.

Victoria-and-Abdul-Judi-Dench-Ali-Faizal-1

The film wants to be a character piece that is anchored by the unlikely bond shared between the Queen and a servant, but it is impossible to detach the story from the surrounding political and historical context. Victoria is made out to be progressive and tolerant, with the royal household and staff treating Abdul with utmost prejudice. The film seems to exaggerate and simplify events for the sake of coherence, as historical films often do, and it is unlikely that the real Victoria was an activist who denounced Islamophobia. The film also sanitizes the atrocities committed by the British Raj during the Empire’s rule of India, a painful period in history which has left scars that are still evident today.

Victoria-and-Abdul-Judi-Dench-1
However, these flaws in the film’s approach are significantly papered over by Dench’s remarkable performance. She plays Victoria as a lonely, curmudgeonly elderly woman, who has never quite recovered from the loss of her husband Albert. There’s tender vulnerability in the portrayal, which is tempered with formidable power. Even if this particular portrayal of Victoria might not be the most historically accurate, Dench is consistently riveting. As if there were ever any doubt about it, she once again proves to be a national treasure of the highest order.

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The dashing Faizal is immensely likeable as Abdul, playing the part with a genuine warmth and having a certain glow about him. Unfortunately, Abdul feels under-written, and the film takes on undertones of Orientalism by depicting Abdul as overly servile, sagely, gentle and enlightened. It seems the real Abdul was more aggressively ambitious than the benign film version. That said, the chemistry between Dench and Faizal does work, and both actors play off each other well.

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The supporting characters are largely one-note caricatures, with the various members of the royal household tut-tutting about Osbourne House. Izzard’s Bertie is drawn as an especially despicable villain who’s easy to hate, and while Izzard bites into the role with relish, the character is difficult to buy as an actual person. Akhtar is funny as Buksh, who is constantly playing second fiddle to the taller, more handsome Abdul. He also gets an excellent dramatic scene.

Victoria and Abdul boasts pedigree behind the camera beyond the director and writer – costume designer Consolata Boyle’s re-creations of Victorian fashions are lavish and eye-catching, while Thomas Newman’s score incorporates Indian instruments like the sitar, tabla and santur hammered dulcimer into his usual new age orchestral style. Cinematographer Danny Cohen presents the English and Indian locations in all their grandeur, with Victoria’s Glassalt Shiel retreat in Scotland looking especially gorgeous.

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The film starts out as a comedy and is often amusing, but as it journeys into more dramatic territory, one might get distracted attempting to parse the implications of the film and the liberties it takes with historical events in service of emotional beats. It’s a good thing then that Victoria and Abdul has Dench’s peerless skill as an actress to count on.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Tanks for the Memories: Ah Boys to Men 4 set visit

For inSing

Tanks for the memories: on the set of Ah Boys to Men 4

A tank flattens a car as Jack Neo takes us through the mayhem

By Jedd Jong

On a sweltering September afternoon, this writer walked past overturned cars in an open-air parking lot full of debris. There were open flames and smoke, as a bloodied extra covered in dust shuffled by. Bricks were scattered about, as egg crates were being burned to create smoke, the smell of cordite hanging in the air.

Hiding in the distance behind some trees, almost as if waiting the wings of a theatre, was a Leopard 2SG main battle tank.

inSing was on the set of Ah Boys to Men 4, the latest instalment in Jack Neo’s highly popular series of comedy films, which follow a group of Singapore Armed Forces recruits through their National Service.

In this film, our heroes are serving their reservist duty in the Armour Unit, operating tanks and armoured fighting vehicles. The scene that was being filmed that day involved a Singaporean tank pursuing an enemy armoured vehicle.

The film stars Tosh Zhang, Wang Weiliang, Joshua Tan and Maxi Lim, reprising their roles as Sergeant Ong, Lobang, Ken Chow and Aloysius “Wayang King” Jin respectively. New additions to the cast include Apple Chan, Jai Kishan, Ryan Lian and Hafiz Aziz. None of the principal actors were present during the set visit, because the interior scenes with the actors had already been shot earlier. Actual soldiers from Headquarters, Armour were operating the vehicles on the set, with Major Audrey Kon keeping a watchful eye over the proceedings.

Director Neo assured us that unlike the war scene glimpsed in the first Ah Boys to Men film, this was not a video game, and the film would depict Singapore actually at war. Where the invading troops hail from, he wouldn’t say. “We are not going to say where. Enemy can be anywhere,” Neo told the visiting media.

Speaking to inSing in Mandarin, Neo laid out the scene for us “These HDB blocks in Dover have been sold en bloc, so we’re able to take over this area and turn it into our war zone,” he said. “In around a month’s time, the whole thing will be taken down. Nobody’s staying here anymore, so it’s safe for us to do our explosions. We’ve spent a lot of time and money converting this into our war zone. As you can see, there’s lots of debris, as well as real cars that we’ve wrecked.”

“There are so many crew members required, we need lots of coordination,” Neo remarked, gesturing to the people around him. “We’re working with machines, and sometimes machines will throw tantrums. They’ll go ‘oh, I’m malfunctioning now, too bad for you,’ and you have to sort that out.” When asked if humans throw tantrums too, Neo replied, “occasionally”.

Two main action beats were on the agenda: the Leopard tank was set to roll over and completely flatten a car, and there was a major explosion planned for later that day. We waited around for hours, and Neo explained why things weren’t moving at a breakneck pace. “It’s very troublesome to shoot,” he said. “Once there’s a mistake, you have to reset everything to zero, to check that everything is safe, so the process is very, very slow. But slow is good, to make sure everyone is safe.”

After several hours of making sure everything was just right, it was time for the big event. The tank trundled along, gaining speed, crushing the Chevrolet beneath its treads. After the sequence was complete, Neo happily posed next to the flattened automobile.

After another two hours, it was time to film the next big sequence. An unassuming bespectacled elderly man in a red polo shirt and navy-blue shorts set up an explosive charge in front of the enemy armoured fighting vehicle. This is Jimmy Low, founder of The Stunt Production and the go-to guy for pyrotechnic stunts in local film and TV productions.

After making sure everyone was at a safe distance, that the debris was arranged to hide the explosive charge from the camera, and with a drone positioned overhead to get an aerial shot, it was time to blow stuff up. Even with earplugs in, the explosion was deafening and the shockwave palpable.

The film is being released the same year that the Singapore Armed Forces celebrates its 50th anniversary. Why should audiences return to cinemas for a fourth go-round? “Just from listening about the personal experiences of the men in your family who’ve undergone National Service, you might not get a full understanding of what it’s like,” Neo commented, adding that the Ah Boys to Men films “bring you inside the units, and convey why National Service is important to our nation, especially in times like these.”

Ah Boys to Men 4 opens in Singapore on 9 November 2017