REVIEW: “Siddhartha the Musical”
Siddhartha The Musical is based on a biography of The Buddha’s Life, written by Hsing Yun, a Buddhist monk. The story encompasses the entire life of Prince Siddhartha, from the moment he was born to the day he abandoned his earthly form, two thousand six hundred years ago.
When the show begins, we see only Ananda (played by Gabriel Gomez), The One Who Remembers, as he narrates the scene about to unfold. In ancient India, a land known as Kapilavastu is ruled by King Suddhodana (Cerj Michael Germudo). King Suddhodana’s troubles are akin to many kings throughout history, the most prominent one being the absence of an heir (“This King Needs A Son”). One night, his wife Queen Maya (Rhea May Sadaya) has a peculiar dream, and on the following day, tells the King that she is with child. The story progresses to the joyous occasion: Prince Siddhartha is born. Said joy is shortlived when a seer prophesies that the Prince will either become a powerful king or a great spiritual leader. Threatened by this, King Suddhodana puts several preventive measures in place in order to ensure the Prince follows the path to kingship. Later on, we are witness to the wedding of Siddhartha to Yasodhara (Ivy Gallur). The scene is a beautiful vision of vitality and ceaseless movement. As the story moves along, we find Siddhartha roaming the grounds outside the palace. He encounters people ridden with old age, sickness and death (“The Four Special Signs”), and is fazed, due to his sheltered upbringing. Still reeling from the experience, Siddhartha then witnesses a monk tending to the disease ridden individuals. Amazed by the man’s state of tranquility, the Prince abandons his father, his wife, and his life of luxury; vowing to become a monk in order to overcome world suffering. The rest of the story shows the difficult path of Siddhartha on his journey to becoming the enlightened one, encompassing abdication, humiliation, and tribulation.
SIDDHARTHA’s composer and lyricist Jude Gitamondoc is a phenomenal artist. The arrangements (some of which are inspired by the poetry of Ven. Master Hsing Yun) have layers upon layers of various instruments, creating full, resonant tones that could only be invigorated when performed by a live orchestra. Since the production is constantly touring, it does not have a long term home; thus the lack of an orchestra. Despite this, Jude’s songs are powerful and vivacious. The strains in “This King Needs A Son”, one of the show’s most notable songs, are somehow both uplifting and resonant. Cerj Michael Germudo’s Suddhodana stands firm on the stage; ineradicable and dominant. His voice is one of the most powerful in the show, and with a thunderous quality, Germudo constantly delivers belt after belt, showing no signs of weariness. Two of the other most notable performances in the show belong to Gabriel Gomez’s Ananda and Benjie Layos’ Siddhartha. Much like Germudo, they possess powerful voices which continually fill the theater.
“The Four Special Signs” is certainly the show’s most visually striking number. Kapilavastu’s afflicted are bathed in harsh red light, which creates a sinister image when paired with fast-paced, limb-contorting movements. My only qualm about this scene was the spotlight that remained on Siddhartha throughout the whole number, as it slightly reduced the ominous effect over the rest of the scene. Some time after abandoning his old life, Siddhartha is seen meditating among the other ascetics (monks who follow a religion characterized by self-discipline and abstinence from all forms of indulgence). In this scene, a large tree is situated in the middle of the stage, separating Siddhartha and Yasodhara. The bride’s side of the stage is lit by the stark sunlight resting upon the palace walls, while the former Prince is bathed in moonlight. Yasodhara begins the a song of yearning (the aptly entitled “Longing”), and while it is a beautiful song, (which even ends in a wonderful counterpoint duet between the two), it does seem out of place when contrasted to the rest of the show’s musical themes. SIDDHARTHA is primarily comprised of songs that are invigorating, and “Longing” is more of a pop ballad than anything else.
SIDDHARTHA’S staging made use of some solid set pieces, but relied on an LED screen for the background. I’m not totally against projections being used in musicals, but LED screens can often have dead spots, which unfortunately occurred during the show. Being grounded in such an organic setting, layered backdrops or even screen projections would have brought more to the production. The show’s costumes were designed by Chinese clothing brand NE TIGER, and they were absolutely stunning. Dazzling colors, intricate details, and meticulous metalwork made up the elaborate costumes designed by Chinese clothing brand NE TIGER.
Vincent Gaton’s choreography is absolutely stunning. With light, airy actions to grand and frenetic movements, his choreography incorporates various multicultural gestures, encompassing The Buddha’s message of oneness. While Sarah Enclona-Henderson’s direction is splendid, I do have a major qualm with the show. In the first few numbers, while the scenes’ primary focus is on the action and ‘dialogue’, all of the ensemble members are continually gesticulating or dancing. It does add motion to the large stage, but does not work with all of the numbers. In the end, it pulls focus away from the dialogue, and diminishes the dramatic heft the scenes would have otherwise.
There are several challenges to mounting a musical based on such material and artistic inventiveness can be compromised when you have to convey a story like this. Most people are aware of Buddhism as a religion, but not many know how it came to be or what it teaches. While the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar offered a contemporary look at Christ (and an especially empathic Judas), and even went so far as to criticize him, Siddhartha favors a different approach, aiming to enlighten and inform audience members in the ways of The Buddha. The show becomes peppered with various Buddhist teachings and often leaves you with a surplus of information. and as a result, a good deal of romance is lost.
SIDDHARTHA’s subject matter makes it a difficult show to mount; especially when you take into consideration the sponsorship of the monks and Buddhist foundation. It is the epitome of the struggle between artistic integrity, and historical accuracy. Given this situation, the team behind SIDDHARTHA have made a fantastic show. Despite the few issues I had with it’s technical aspects, I truly enjoyed the musical. SIDDHARTHA still has a ways to go, but the show’s talent, heart, and message are sure to make the journey worthwhile, and the final production truly brilliant.