It's A Hit!

Tue 24th – Sat 28th January 2012

reviews

Hyunwoo June Choo

at 11:36 on 25th Jan 2012

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Black dresses, pastel cardigans, and Burton Taylor—for Broadway musicals? The connection isn’t obvious, but subtle. Indeed, subtlety is what distinguishes Jack Graham’s mix-and-match selection of Broadway musical pieces from the splashy, brow-raising original. Surprisingly, the paradox of a subtle Broadway performance emanates its own lot of charisma, tinged with mellow purity only so palpable in the intimate space of Burton Taylor. With exception of a couple of pieces, which, admittedly, were highly reminiscent of a high school show choir competition (gone wrong), the performances showcased a delightful flashback of some of Broadway’s best musical theatre pieces.

Lights dim, begins the band to stage left, comprised of a percussionist, a pianist, and a flutist, and enters full cast of performers, two ladies and two gentlemen, primly dressed in black. Everything is minimalist, but not lacking. They sing, they harmonize, they dance, and move onto the next number, each preceded by a brief introduction about the original musical and the composer. There are nine total numbers (and maybe a surprise!) selected from each decade starting with 1930s. No specific theme encompasses the diverse song selections, other than the fact that they are “a hit”, and reflect Jack Graham’s goal of exposing different dimensions of a musical theatre production.

The numbers Jack Graham chose were classic and iconic Broadway pieces of the decade. Like with any remakes, it is instinctive to compare the performance to the original; and boy, did they have large shoes to fill. For the most part, the shoes fit, albeit loosely, but for segments of the show, it was obvious that some pair were too ambitious for the performers. My expectations for the pieces must have biased my perception because despite a great vocal performance, it was theatrically underwhelming. Zakiy Manji’s vocal performance of “Sunrise, Sunset” was certainly astounding, and would have been so if it belonged in an a capella piece; but in Broadway speak, he failed to deliver Tevye’s sonorous vibrato drenched in the parental melancholy of letting his child go. Again returning to the aforementioned concept of subtlety, the lack of facial expression and presence in the stage, made it obvious it was not a musical performance, but purely a vocal one. Holly Graham’s “When You’re Good to Mama” similarly had her own merits of enthusiastic performance, but it was no match for Queen Latifah, a woman who exudes that authoritatively sexy sass just by existing (all hail the queen).

But we can hail her for a different number. I was pleasantly captivated by Holly Graham’s duet with Hannah Bristow, “Take Me or Leave Me,” from my personal favorite, "RENT". The two faithfully captured the angsty feud of a lesbian couple, moments before parting at their own wedding. Heather Young, though her genuine vocal talent enchants the audience, is perhaps too elegant for an over-the-top, character-driven role demanded in a musical (wide-stretched smiles, strong movements, unabsolvable grief…and all that jazz). Other more character-committed performances, especially those featuring Hannah Bristow or Jack Graham, the director himself, satiate the audiences of a Broadway quality musical.

Though performance is a considerable part of a musical, solely comparing the performance quality to Broadway would miss the point of Graham’s artwork. Each selection carries a different message, and Graham attempts to illustrate the power of musicals in delivering these perspectives and emotions. To large extent, he succeeds, and people may react to it in different ways according to their familiarity with the musical. For an American musical fanatic like myself, I grew up watching films and plays, so I can’t say my appreciation of musicals were newfound (inside my head, I was singing every line right alongside the cast); but I did I find new meanings in Jack Graham’s arrangement, and was engaged with the genuine purity of his masterpiece.

I didn’t relive my experience as a Broadway audience member, but I guess it was a wrong mindset to have. I came out absolutely adoring this production for its own merits. If I were a rich man, I would buy tickets for all—but for now (for now!), I strongly urge you to spare an hour from your day, “It’s a Hit” will brighten it, guaranteed.

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Gavin Elias

at 16:16 on 25th Jan 2012

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It must be admitted up front that I’m a sucker for a good showtune. Whether it’s due to their infectious, toe-tapping melodies or their impassioned articulation of inner thoughts, they have always struck me as a highly emotive – and effective – form of expression. It was intriguing, therefore, to watch ‘It’s a Hit!’ – an Oxcetera student production that is as much a carefully crafted argument as an aesthetically pleasing ‘musical showcase’ – tackle this issue head on. Eschewing the conventionally copious orchestra/ensemble for a skeleton three-man band (flutist, percussionist and pianist) and trading Broadway-esque spectacle for the barren stage of Burton Taylor Studios, director Jack Graham fields an eclectic, yet carefully chosen, group of showtunes from across the decades in support of his through line: that musical theatre, far from being merely a frivolous, if pretty, distraction from dramatic expression, has always been a natural portal into our feelings, and is as raw and evocative as any other medium or genre.

In delivering this argument, the production unfolds much like an evolutionary timeline of the Broadway musical. A chirpy, upbeat opening featuring a selection of tunes from the 30s kick-starts the show, giving the audience its first glance at the five onstage performers. From there, the piece flits through the decades, pausing for an examination of certain stand-out success stories; we’re graced with the nimble lyricism of 'West Side Story'’s ‘America’, the parental poignancy of 'Fiddler on the Roof'’s ‘Sunrise, Sunset’, and the dynamic passion of 'Rent'’s ‘Take Me Or Leave Me’, amongst other numbers. Each new piece showcases a different performer, as they arrange themselves in everything from solos to quintets. The show concludes its 50 minute-ish run with two more contemporary selections: the pained and surprisingly touching ‘People Like Us’ from 'The Wild Party', and ‘For Now’ from Avenue Q, a finale that sees the five performers reunited in a jubilant musical treatise on the transience of life.

It’s an impressive display in terms of selection, as one certainly senses the sweeping theme of the lineup even if only through the breadth of emotional timbre it manages to cover. Indeed, the assortment’s cohesion is brought to the forefront by the verbal segues that the performers deliver between pieces, each highlighting the change in tone, form, and emotional content between the preceding and following numbers. And while the delivery and scripting of these transitions is perhaps stylistically questionable – some of them come across as rather simplistic and on the nose, and tend to break the musical reverie induced by the previous song instead of gently easing us into the next –, they nonetheless serve as vital connective tissue in service to the production’s overarching goal and provide only as much context as the director requires to bolster his argument.

Being musical theatre (even if it is more meta-musical theatre than anything else), the execution of course weighs heavily on the musicians and performers. Happily, the skill-levels and delivery of both are generally very good. The former group (Alice Angliss, Jaymee Coonjobeeharry and Jonathon Soman) leave little to be desired, offering a solid, professional-sounding accompaniment to the business on stage, even if their auditory range is limited due to their low numbers. The five singers/dancers (Hannah Bristow, Holly Graham, Jack Graham, Zakiy Manji and Heather Young), meanwhile, all give clear, strong vocal performances of their own and for the most part do a wonderful job of encapsulating the essence of pivotal show tunes with minimal context – a tough task, to be sure. Admittedly, some songs are delivered more shakily than others, but each performer clicks into their groove at least once during the production – Holly Graham’s confident and suggestive rendition of ‘When You’re Good to Mama’ particularly comes to mind – and the ensemble pieces demonstrate that the group is able to harmonize and play off each other very pleasantly. The quality – or indeed, existence – of acting during the songs and the occasional spoken dialogue is somewhat uneven, but this is excusable given the musical focus of the production (lyrics and notes are on show here, not facial dexterity), and at most this fault is slightly distracting. My only other gripe would be with the choice to have the performers assume faltering American accents for many of the pieces; while such an attempt theoretically makes sense given the Broadway origin of the numbers, it is for the most part unconvincingly done and should probably have been abandoned for a more natural intonation.

Overall though, ‘It’s a Hit!’ certainly qualifies as quite a success itself. By divorcing the very human content of musicals from the spectacle and razzmatazz that so often accompanies it, the piece makes a strong argument for the enduring emotional resonance of the genre and its oft overlooked capacity to stir us just as profoundly as those lofty ‘dramas’. An intimate celebration of musical theatre and an engaging experience in its own right, this production is certainly recommended to any who have ever lost themselves in the wonderful, timeless melodies of Broadway.

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