Review: Sleepless Town the Musical

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By: Tiffany Chuang

The plot of Sleepless Town is simple and beguiling, but the actual musical is far from innocent. Just how this dark story got anything less than an M18 rating remains a mystery to me.

Twelve-year-old Nora (Julia Abueva) has a bleak life and an overactive imagination.  Her beloved father is dead, her mother is too tired and busy to pay attention to her and her stepfather is uninspiring.  Her only means of escape is through her magical closet where she encounters a bizarre dreamscape of superheroes and other strange creatures.  The queen of the land is the evil Black Azira (Elena Wang), whom Nora must defeat if she is to save the world. Needless to say, the production ends happily, in line with the recurrent motif is that “if it’s not happy, it’s not the end”.

From the moment Sleepless Town and its inhabitants are introduced to us as creations of Nora’s imagination (Nora literally scribbles them into existence from the side of the stage), we sense a lack of innocence in what should be a child’s haven.  The naughty names of One Ball-Less, One Tit-Less, Count Far Kov (say it fast!); gratuitous homosexual rape, simulations of masturbation, humping and countless other obscene gestures turn the vibrancy of the set into a garish, demented carnival.  The audience is barraged with a night of exuberant camp.

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This musical treads a fine line between being provocatively stimulating and OTT (over the top). It largely depended on the cast’s interpretation and I am pleased to report that they did a commendable job of putting it squarely on the side of the former.  Julia Abueva’s Nora is good-natured and earnest, sometimes to the point of being grating. However, she is endearing enough to be forgiven most of the time.  Chua Enlai competently portrayed One Ball-Less and Count Far Kov but his shining moment was his parody of Amy Winehouse.

Elena Wang steals the show as the deliciously evil Black Azira.  It is true that the villains are usually fun anyway, but Wang abjures the stereotype of smoldering feminity.  Instead, Black Azira is an aggressive punk princess with a Mohawk, cocksure smirk, torn stockings, spikes, fierce black boots and a very unladylike swagger.  She is in complete control of herself, whether screeching orders or noting airily that “aerobics is fun” as she kicks her foes around.

Karen Tan deserves special mention in her role as Nora’s tired mother Diana.  She is provides occasional relief from the unrelenting fiesta.  There is something strangely sexy about her world-weariness and cigarette-damaged voice.  She realistically portrays a woman torn in many directions by multiple commitments, but beneath those layers of stress Tan reveals a tender vulnerability when she arranges her daughter’s birthday candles and counts them out in terms of poignant milestones.

Surprisingly, the pivotal character in the show turns out to be the unassuming Jack, Nora’s stepfather, played by Bobby Tonelli.  At first, Tonelli sticks out like a sore thumb as the boring and ineffectual man of the house.  His presence is at best a nuisance to Nora as he tries to ingratiate himself to her with talk of superheroes.  His moments alone with Nora, although formal and respectful, are always a little awkward.  On the night of Nora’s birthday, Jack hesitantly enters her room with a “special surprise” of glowing “kryptonite” (a green lightstick), hoping to bond with her over talk of superman.

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He starts singing a characteristically bland song, seemingly in another pathetic attempt to ingratiate himself to her, but his number takes a sinister turn as the tempo increases aggressively as he turns maniacal, growling about “orgasmic highs” and putting the kryptonite between her “thighs”, and before we know how to react, Nora is screaming and pinned down on her back.  We are forced to watch an excruciating but compelling scene as he plunges the “kryptonite” repeatedly into her while she screams and flails her helpless limbs.  This scene is doubly painful because he is turning a childhood artifact with pleasant associations into a weapon.  A post-production chat with the actor revealed that he had been channeling Ted Bundy all along, and I have to say he was very successful.

This heinous act is, or rather could have been, a very important turning point in the production.  It stains everything with darker shades, leaving the brightly coloured stage as a mockery of the horrors that scar her.  This incongruity could have been developed further to add many more layers of complexity to the production, but the assault seems to be largely ignored.  It seems very unnatural that Nora should be able to spring from her crumpled state and defiled bed back into Sleepless Town with nary a new traumatized quiver in her voice, or tear in her eye.  The only justice she gets is when her mother finds out about Jack’s assaults, shoots him and then calls the police.  The aftermath is not realistic enough, nor is the resolution satisfying enough to justify having the audience sit through such a terrible scene.  The musical ended with Nora having a temporary supernatural reunion with her father, and the terminal number was something about the healing powers of love and time that I was too aghast to pay attention to.

Sleepless Town gets 3.5/5.

Not because it is mediocre, as such a number would suggest, but because the shortcomings that compromise an otherwise perfect score: strong cast, excellent music and choreography, flawless stage management, and a generally compelling script.  If anything, Sleepless Town succeeds in the most important task any performance has: to be remembered.

Sleepless Town
Now – 14 Mar 2009
Tue – Fri, 8:00pm
Sat, 3:00pm & 8:00pm
Sun (1 Mar), 3:00pm & 8:00pm
Sun (8 Mar), 3:00pm & 8:00pm
Drama Centre Theatre

Tickets from SISTIC

>> ArtZine Singapore was there at the opening night and the dresscode was SuperHero Glam! Below: Justin Wong, Lim Yu Beng and Goh Boon Teck dressed up for the night.

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Images by Toy Factory

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