Firefly in the Light
Book, Lyrics, and Music by Shayna Toh
Reviewed by Kenneth Lyen
We have just witnessed the launch of a brilliant Singapore writer of musical theatre, destined to become an international sensation. Shayna Toh, a 17-year-old student, wrote the book, lyrics and music to the musical “Firefly in the Light”. It was performed in the Chamber at the Arts House on 15 November 2014 to a full house.
Even Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote his first musical, “The Likes of Us” at the age of 17, only composed the music, and this work did not receive its first public performance until 40 years later. Lloyd Webber’s second musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” was not written until he was 20 years old. But let’s not quibble over a few years here and there.
SYNOPSIS (Spoiler Alert)
“Firefly in the Light” is about Wendy, a 17-year-old student, who met up with a childhood friend, Jake. A flashback scene showed that they were previously in love with one another. However, the latter had suddenly disappeared for 4 years without communicating with Wendy. He explained that he was studying overseas, but had now returned to rekindle his relationship with her. In the intervening 4 years, Wendy seemed to have lost interest in Jake. We learn that Wendy’s father had left the family many years ago and was an entertainment producer or manager in Hollywood. Wendy wanted to join her father because she was drawn by the bright lights and spell of tinseltown, much like a firefly. However, Wendy’s mother informed her that father was a bad person, and absolutely refused to allow her to go. Mother and daughter argued, and this pushed Wendy into a decision to join her father. Jake and her school friends tried to dissuade her but she stubbornly refused to listen.
The second act shows what a monstrous person her father was. He ran a sleazy night-club, and treated his glamor girls brutally. He did the same with Wendy, and did not even allow her to further her career by auditioning for other shows. She was trapped in a situation she could not escape. She sank into depression. At this point, Jake showed up unexpectedly, saying he had been looking for her for several years. Seeing Wendy in an appalling state, he invited her to watch him perform in a show nearby, and to meet his own agent. Unfortunately, father found out about her plans to leave his establishment, and he lashed out at her violently. In self-defense, she accidentally killed him. The final scene depicts Jake who was singing a song he had written specially for Wendy. While Wendy was alone on the floor shaking hysterically.
Overall “Firefly in the Light” is a most enjoyable musical with a compelling story, good direction by Tabitha Loh, and a strong cast.
The best part of “Firefly in the Light” is the music. There are a total of 12 songs, of which 2 are reprises. The style ranges from lyrical solo ballads, to danceable pop rock, and to dissonant conflict songs delivered by multiple singers. The composer is also the pianist, and is accompanied by an accomplished small instrumental ensemble.
The lyrics are well written and convey the message clearly. The dialogue is natural and carries the story in a compelling manner.
Overall, the performers were excellent, and they all have strong pitch-perfect voices. More than half the cast are graduates from LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore. Special mention must be made of the leads. Rachel Tay, who plays the role of Wendy, conveys the rebellious teenager who descends into cynical distrust, with aplomb. Jake, Wendy’s childhood friend, is played by Linden Furnell, who also depicts a hesitant boyfriend, unsure of how to express is deep-felt feelings. The rest of the cast have to play more than one role. Chia DeZhong plays the cruel despotic father very convincingly.
What reservations do I have? I have expressed them within the following wishes.
I wish I could chose the ending. Perhaps a method to allow the audience vote for either a happy or a sad ending would take away the abruptness of the current ending.
If such an audience choice was not available, I wish the musical was book-ended by a prologue and an epilogue. This would cushion the overly hasty ending.
I wish that Wendy and Jake’s renewed romance was a more developed as this would heighten the subsequent tension.
I wish that Jake had foreshadowed his desire to become a career singer-songwriter more clearly. The current transition of Jake from a dreamy indecisive poetry-reading academic into a Hollywood entertainer, is not quite believable.
I wish that the parents were not such cardboard one-dimensional characters, and that they showed a glimpse of a kinder maternal and paternal instinct.
I felt the parents needed to have a slanging-match song leading to their separation.
The fellow students only appeared in the first half, and I felt that there were too many. Just one close confidant to Wendy was all that it needed, and so this character could be developed to contrast with Wendy’s character.
Singapore does not have a tradition comparable to the USA, where shows could be tried out in a smaller city before transferring it to Broadway. The performance at the Arts House to a small audience seemed to serve as that sort of try-out.
"Firefly in the Light" was a delight to watch, and for a debut musical, it is absolutely remarkable. I am sure that Shayna will be responsible for many future great Singapore musicals. Congratulations!
Music, lyrics, and book: Shayna Toh.
Rachel Tay, Linden Furnell, Sri Widati Ernawan Putri, Chia DeZhong, Ivan Chan, Siti Maznah, Stephanie Phang.
Direction: Tabitha Loh. Choreography: Siti Maznah. Fight Choreography: Ivan Chan.
Lighting: Nigel Pereira, Jack Lim. Set: Tan Ty. Costumes: Irwanni bin Kusnin, Johan Efraimsson. Sound: George Leong.
Piano: Shayna Toh. Bass Guitar: Chia Chong Yue. Violin: Esther Jan. Drums: Johan Efraimsson. Guitar: Sures Ravindran.
Music: John Sharpley. Vocal Coach: Akiko Otao. Dramaturg: Sonny Lim.
(Reviewed on 16 November 2014)