The Stage review: Starry judges, awesome talent, but why does it sound like a karaoke show?

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October 12, 2015 14:09:16 IST

By Lalitha Suhasini

Is India ready for a talent hunt to find English singers? Considering how the country has been producing jazz and rock bands since the Sixties and most English-medium school and colleges take great pride in “Western music” contests, I’d say it’s about time. Two episodes of The Stage and we’ve already heard two impressive singers: Rupin Pahwa from Bengaluru and Kimarsung Jamir from Kohima. There’s clearly no need to fret about talent, regardless of language.

But is Indian television good enough a platform for these singers? I’m not so sure.

The Stage. Image Credit: Screengrab from the trailer

The Stage. Image Credit: Screengrab from the trailer

For some reason, The Stage decided to model its set upon the tackiest of American TV set design from the 1960s. Within seconds of The Stage’s opening shot, I was expecting Spock from Star Trek: The Original Series to step onto stage and co-host the show with singer and model, Shibani Dandekar.

It’s a good thing that contestants can’t see what’s going on behind them — low quality graphics of clouds morph into the Milky Way (all because the singer is singing Dream a Little Dream). This sort of imagery is no inspiration to hold a note.

Then again, what the singers do have to see are rows of people, sitting on chairs like in a giant classroom. That can’t be easy on the nerves. Would it have been so hard to make an arena-like seating plan that would make the studio look marginally more like a concert venue?

The Stage began well enough, with judges Vishal Dadlani, Ehsaan Noorani, Monica Dogra and Debraj Sanyal doing an energetic cover of John Lennon’s Come Together. Those who haven’t heard the song before might be amazed by how the last stanza is so perfectly in tune with Indian current affairs. Cease your amazement: that was Dadlani taking poetic liberties with Lennon’s lyrics. But the first clue to The Stage’s critical weakness was on display during the this first performance: sound quality.

The background score on The Stage sounded like a karaoke sound system and this is both critical and disastrous. When contestant Kamakshi Khanna performed Florence And The Machine’s Shake It Out, both her vocals and the music lacked fire. Would she have benefited from a back-up band instead of a karaoke machine? Probably, but from what we could hear, it made sense that Dadlani wanted to eliminate Kamakshi, or “bench” her as it is described on the show.

There’s a lot I’d like bench in The Stage, and high on that list is judge and head of Universal Music India, Debraj Sanyal’s peculiar accent. Sanyal, also part of the metal band Brahma, has cultivated an accent whose origin may never be known to humankind. If Sanyal formed a band with Quantico-star Priyanka Chopra and general legend Salman Khan, the nation may stop listening to English music altogether.

Having said that, props to The Stage for putting together a panel of judges that does not include Himesh Reshammiya. Reshammiya of the infamous nasal voice, who was on the panel for the Indian version of The Voice, a talent hunt for Hindi singers. That show was launched earlier this year, with equally flashy sets. Even if there wasn’t pressure to live up to the American version, you had to cringe as Reshammiya and the rest of the judges tried to woo the contestants. The whole point of the Indian The Voice seemed to be for a judge to impress a contestant, instead of the other way around.

It’s hard to imagine any of the jury members on The Stage cajoling contestants to pick them as their mentors. After Kenishaa Francis did her rather unimpressive cover of an Ella Fitzgerald track, Dadlani noticed that the rest of judges were rooting for her and so he diplomatically said, “I was happy to watch.” In another instance, a contestant came on stage looking like a rubber duckie, but judge Monica Dogra, vocalist of electro rock band Shaa’ir and Func, insisted that she “looked like an angel”. Barring a few moments like this, there was some serious tough love on display during the second episode of The Stage.

While the judges went easy on the contestants in the first episode, they were on the money during the second. This was evident when Alisha Pais from Mumbai, an established musician who has been performing at gigs and festivals across the country, performed for them. Not only was there no bias in her favour, the judges went so far as to voice their concern about whether an established musician should be in a show that’s supposed to provide a platform for amateur talent. It’s a question that The Stage’s production team should have raised. Pais was benched, which means her future on the show is under threat, but there’s no doubt that with her experience, Pais has an edge over the rest of the contestants.

Most singers on the show were faced with the challenge of picking the right song to showcase their voice. Either they overreached by picking songs by artists like Adele or they underwhelmed by picking songs that are essentially part of auto tune’s publicity campaign. The latter are not a great choice even for a house party, let alone a show where you’re being judged for your vocals.

It’s a shame that The Stage, which is all about music and singing, thought it made more sense to invest in a disco backdrop and not on a band that could play live with the contestants. The show has a batch of contestants who range from promising to awesome. They have an excellent panel that’s fair in its judging. Now if only the recording and mixing didn’t make the contestants sound like they’re the last ones standing at a karaoke night in an empty bar.

The Stage airs on Colors Infinity on Saturdays and Sundays at 9 pm.

Lalitha Suhasini is an independent music journalist from Mumbai and the former editor of Rolling Stone India.

Updated Date: Oct 13, 2015 12:50 PM