Theatre review: Emily The Musical presents a diminished matriarch

(From left) Karen Lim, Melissa Hecker and April Kong will perform different stages of Emily's character in Emily The Musical presented by Musical Theatre Limited.
(From left) Karen Lim, Melissa Hecker and April Kong will perform different stages of Emily's character in Emily The Musical presented by Musical Theatre Limited. ST PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN

EMILY THE MUSICAL

School of the Arts Studio Theatre/ Friday (May 20)

Stella Kon's Emily Of Emerald Hill is an enduring dramatic work that has been repeatedly staged since 1984, with performers such as Leow Puay Tin, Margaret Chan and Ivan Heng stepping into her beaded slippers. While they have shown us different sides to the Peranakan matriarch - imperious, maternal, vulnerable - she has always remained compelling.

In the latest re-imagining of the monodrama, as a musical, we got one that seemed somehow diminished.

Partly, it was a consequence of the production expanding the story. Previously, it was just Emily alone, dominating the stage and the story of her transformation from naive 14-year-old bride to iron-willed woman of the house.

With a full-fledged cast of actors now parading across the simple stage depicting the interior of the house on Emerald Hill, that feeling of conspiratorial intimacy with Emily was lost. It also did not help that she was played by three actresses at different stages in her life: Melissa Wei-En Hecker in her youth, April Kong in her prime and Karen Lim in her old age.

In the programme, Kon, who wrote the book and lyrics for the musical, says that she was curious about the other characters. But it turns out that they were not very interesting.

We got to see Kheong (Ian Chionh), Emily's husband, in the flesh but learnt precious little about him. And then in a rather jarring moment, he was suddenly gushing about another woman in song.

Mei Choon (Jasmine Blundell), Emily's grandson's girlfriend, was essentially a sounding board for the older Emily. Unfortunately, she was prone to inane comments and the romance between her and the grandson was a yawn.

The dialogue tended to be clunky, which was also a problem for the lyrics. While there was a welcome attempt to insert some Peranakan patois into the songs, the lyrics were also often too plain and lacking in wit and surprise.

The songs weren't helped by the singers going off-key (or else there were some odd modulations going on in composer Desmond Moey's score).

Some of director Sonny Lim's staging decisions seemed a little strange, including an awkward ballad between young Emily and her father which had an inordinate amount of hand-holding between the two.

In the end, it seemed that the too-neat lesson Emily had to learn was this: If you love somebody, set them free, a point hammered home in a repeated anecdote about holding a bird in one's hand.

The reimagining might not be a triumph, but if there is anything we have learnt about Emily, it is that she has an indomitable spirit. She will be back, in one form or another.

bchan@sph.com.sg