Theatre review: Evergreen xinyao tunes shine in If There're Seasons...

There is always a season for this musical, it seems.

This is the third time that The Theatre Practice is staging what has proven to be a crowd favourite since 2007, in no small part due to the timeless magnetism of composer Liang Wern Fook's songs.

If There're Seasons is an unabashed star vehicle for Liang, whose name immediately evokes the Singapore folk music movement of the 1990s, and his charming music is the solid backbone of this otherwise rather unwieldy drama.

The ingredients are all in place for some major tugging at the heartstrings: down-to-earth Singapore boy A-Le (George Chan), mourning his late girlfriend Xiao Jing (Celine Rosa Tan), leaves his home for the bright lights of New York. As he settles into the Singaporean diaspora, he falls for aspiring actress Rose (Joanna Dong), but finds himself torn between his old love and the new.

Veteran Hong Kong dramatist Raymond To, a frequent collaborator with the theatre company, has crafted a narrative stretched thinly to fit the varied scope of Liang's repertoire, squeezing in a few outlying songs about school life and growing up to pad a framework about these interconnected lives.

It is an ambitious undertaking, and To attempts to go beyond the treacly sentimentality of the script's love triangle by working in some scenes that touch on Singapore's aspirations on the world stage.

There is the unfortunate tendency here to view these ambitions as a zero-sum game.

A-Le, Rose and their bubbly musician friend A-Qiang (Ric Liu) are all individuals seeking their place in the world, whether in an attempt to define themselves artistically or to forcibly separate themselves from an identity imposed on themselves by a lost love or estranged partner.

This makes for some frustrating logical fallacies - so many of the characters view pursuing love and pursuing a career as mutually exclusive arrangements, when they could almost certainly have both instead of resorting to a series of tearful separations.

But then again, the deep draw of If There're Seasons has never been its meandering plot. At nearly three hours, its initial cheerful fleet-footedness soon turns into a slow shuffle.

Rather, this musical is perfectly happy to let the wonderful infectiousness of xinyao take centrestage, and most of the lead cast members rise to the occasion commendably.

Chan and Dong are both reprising their lead roles, and they approach their parts with a quiet assurance, almost as if they were slipping on a pair of comfortably well-worn shoes. The ever-reliable Chan, in particular, has a lovely tenor that fits in perfectly with both the pleasant insouciance of Liang's showtunes, as well as his achy ballads.

Tan's dulcet voice works in her role as the fluttery ingenue. She and Dong play diametrically opposing characters who could have well been narrative devices: one plays the domestic and dutiful partner, the other a feisty go-getter who is hard-pressed to choose between settling down and her career. In this modern age, I think we can at least manage a female protagonist who doesn't have to swallow her ambitions to land a husband.

Despite these glass ceilings and clunky plot machinations, If There're Seasons so earnestly shoulders the responsibility of putting homegrown music in the spotlight that it is often difficult to resist its charms.

In a city where the shifts in our physical and emotional landscape could rival the most tumultuous of seasonal changes, and where hardly anything stays the same, it is a pleasure to know that some things, like Liang's songs, can remain constant and evergreen.
Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @corrietan

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