CHILDREN'S LETTERS TO GOD Edit
- Book by: Stuart Hample
- Music by: David Evans
- Lyrics by: Douglas J Cohen
- Based on the Book by: Stuart Hample and Eric Marshall
- Director: Duncan Royce
- Musical Director: Babes Conde
- Cast: Jerone Roman Abueva, Julia Roman Abueva, Katie Andrews, Daniel
Hutchison, Erica Mei Kleinman, Sam Langan, Shanice Nathan and Aliya Tayabali
Asia Major has done the impossible. They made Children's Letters to God into a musical that I actually enjoyed - and considering what a cynical heathen I am, that wasn't easy.
You see, Children's Letters itself is a maddeningly saccharine medley of lyric pabulum in celebration of the over-televised American brat. Its plot is flimsy and predictable, its characters are essentially cardboard cutouts, and it doesn't even have the Godspell guts to come out as an unashamedly Christian musical - oh no, it's all about the universal angst of growing up, distilled from the inspirational innocence of Stuart Hample's book of the same name.
What Asia Major did right, in my view, was to cast a small but strong group of young people for this show (five per show, eight counting the alternates). While not consistently excellent, these kids showed some serious discipline and talent in performance, revealing the intensive training that director Michael Royce and musical director Babes Conde must have invested in this production. Almost all fell between the ages of 8 and 13 - not an easy age group to work with - but they acquitted themselves remarkably onstage, in both solo and group numbers, hitting notes and performing dance routines worthy of university-age performers. How can the theatre bitch in me fail to be impressed?
And let's not forget the kind of challenges these tykes were facing - including, may I reiterate, a manifestly dodgy musical. The story uses the terribly cliched device of a motley crew of school kids - the jock with a sensitive side, the romantic, the drama queen, the brat, and the fat nerd - but despite the first two graduating to dating and the jock moving away to Australia, there's not much to keep us emotionally tied to the events of the drama. How can one not be alienated, after all, by children who seem to use every excuse in every conversation to clasp their hands, face heavenwards, and pray? The story is a mere vehicle for the quoting of Hample's collection of "Kids Say the Darnedest Things About God!" clips - which is why, from the minute a girl walks in with a pet turtle, you can be sure that the animal is going to die in the next sixty seconds so that she can Bravely Confront the Issue of Death. Boo-hoo.
It's a better idea to see the work as a collection of songs: longer, thematic explorations of different children's perspectives on divinity, as the kids ask the eternal questions, "Why does it rain?" and "Why can't you kill off my elder sister?" But even as a revue, the work is not ideal. The music's fine here, with a good mix of great melodies - Sesame Street-style choruses like the Prologue run alongside complex rounds like Daydreams and beautiful, soulful solos like Six Hours as a Princess. But content-wise, some songs are just mind-numbingly patronizing for an adult. Like Everyone Else teaches the fat nerd that he shouldn't desire to be an athletic piece of jail bait, whereas Arnold is a rather pointless paean to the merits of the pet turtle, shortly before it dies (possibly from scorn).
Furthermore, the creators of Children's Letters have an unfortunate agenda that causes them to raise the difficult religious questions that children ask God ("Maybe you're on vacation / Maybe you're not really there / Maybe we're talking to the air") only to move speedily away from such quagmires with the attention span of a five-year-old on refined sugar. In Ants, it merely takes one light-hearted bullying incident to turn the bratty little sister from a murderous ant-killing tyrant into an all-benevolent saintlet vowing never again to harm a living creature, just as the full cast realizes, in the middle of singing When I Am in Charge, that a world without parents would not only deliver full freedom but also (gasp!) no pocket-money! (What a shining allegory of how atheist ethics is unworthy due to the financial benefits of making business contacts through organized religion.)
All this is exacerbated by Asia Major's rather muddled decision to alter some lines in the musical for a specifically Singaporean audience - hence one girl's question, "God, can you name all the Mass Rapid Transport stations in Singapore? I can". It's apparently part of a greater project which incorporates quotes from children in local countries while restaging essentially the same musical (down to the same tacky building block set design) as the first production in New York City. But while I'm a fan of syncretism on principle, references to Vesak Day and National Day simply do not sit well in as American a production as this, where the celebration of A Simple Holiday Song involves a tribute, not just to Christmas, but also to Hannukah (kudos to 12-year-old Sam Langan for actually breaking into Hebrew verse at that point). Stars and stripes are signaled even less disputably as another character immediately pipes up, "And don't forget Kwanzaa! You can't forget Kwanzaa!" (For the uninitiated, Kwanzaa is an exclusively African-American holiday shortly after Christmas that is unobserved to the extent that many black comedians make jokes about it.)
Much of this is jarring, especially through the spectacles of a reviewer who's more used to deconstruction than snapping his fingers. Yet, crucially, a lot of it was only marginally consequential during the actual performance. I can't credit Asia Major with a great choice of text, but I can emphasize my appreciation of a good cast whose solid performances were largely able to distract me from the problems with what actually came out of their mouths.
And while it's arguable that the kids, rather than the company, did most of the work, I'm still impressed by the fact that a decision was made to concentrate on eight actors alone, rather than going the school-musical route and hiring a large horde of semi-trained rug rats to carry the play with their cutesiness. It's a tried and tested formula for bringing in endless friends and family and churchgoers with their hearts full of mercy toward any tyke who might flub his lines stage center. Much more difficult to aim for quality; to aim to win over the arts connoisseur as well as the soccer mom.
And I say again, I am won over. I could have been ripped off, but I wasn't. Not even a back-up chorus was used - trust was placed into the hands of these preteen soloists, some of which, like Aliya Tayabali and Erica Mei Kleinman, were able to combine acting and great singing together in a package that's rare enough in adults, let alone children.
When you have good enough actors, an audience can fall in love with any play for a good hour and a half, and the literary faults will only leave a bitter taste in their mouths in the later days when they process what they've seen. So here's a vote in favor of the production team. We'll just have to see in the future whether they're as adept in managing mature actors as they are children.
Written by Ng Yi-Sheng, this review first appeared in The Flying Inkpot. It is reproduced here with permission.