Saturday, October 12, 2019

Review: Lim Boon Keng : More Than Just an MRT Station

Lim Boon Keng : More than just an MRT station

10 Oct, 2019 at the Victoria Theatre
Review by Jeremy Lee

When I first heard that there was going to be a Lim Boon Keng - The Musical, my first thought was: “Oh finally, they are going to do a musical on the Barisan Socialis leader who was Lee Kuan Yew’s political ally and could have even become our PM if things worked out differently. Is it a Bicentennial companion piece to the LKY Musical?”

Yes, I sheepishly admit my ignorance in thinking the protagonist of the latest production by Musical Theatre Limited was Lim Chin Siong -- but admit it, wouldn’t most people?

However, the absence of Dr Lim Boon Keng in our collective consciousness is actually a sad reflection of how a true Singaporean pioneer was virtually wiped from history. Unless the average Singaporean can be bothered to do a search for the scant information about him in the National Archives of Singapore, what would they know about the man besides the fact that an MRT station is named after him?


Thus book writer Stella Kon, who is Dr Lim’s great-granddaughter, hopes to change that, and remind us of her ancestor’s achievements. The “Emily of Emerald Hill” scribe was just 12 when he died, and had to do research on her own to find out more about him.

It turns out that as portrayed by the musical, which is running till 13 October at the Victoria Theatre, Dr Lim was a man of great ideals, but also a man of contradictions.

The show takes great pains to showcase how as a Peranakan, Dr Lim is a true blend of East and West -- on one hand, he spoke English, was a Queen’s Scholar and received the Order of the British Empire. On the other, both his wives were born in China, and he was so passionate about China’s modernisation and Chinese language learning that he was president of Xiamen University for 16 years.

He also had progressive ideas for the time, urging the then-still very conservative Peranakans to send their daughters to school and founding the Singapore Chinese Girls School for that purpose.

However, when we first meet Dr Lim as a young man, the show chooses to highlight his lofty ideals by depicting him as somewhat of a blowhard, with his penchant for lecturing his long-suffering wife Margaret, despite her being herself a noblewoman who was educated in the West. One wonders why she eventually marries him and becomes the love of his life, considering she can’t seem to get a word in edgeways.

Her life is (mercifully?) cut short when she dies of consumption, and Dr Lim, for all his progressive ideals, ironically succumbs to a match-made second marriage. This is where the show got a bit confusing for me, as this was depicted in a non-linear fashion, i.e. one moment he is with Margaret, the next his second wife Grace pops up and in the scene after that he introduces Margaret as his wife again. Presumably, this is so the audience can be treated to a lovely number with both women singing together, but otherwise I’m not sure why that decision was made.


The actresses playing the women who put up with Dr Lim, however, are the most watchable things about the show. Audrey Luo, an always-delightful veteran of the local theatre scene, shines during her unfortunately-too-short time on stage as Margaret, who despite being encumbered with a behemoth of a dress that manages to look frumpy despite being eye-blindingly red, manages to convey her intelligence and pluckiness amid a world of men. The show would have benefited from giving her more stage time.

Celine Rosa Tan gives off quiet dignity but no less intelligence as second wife Grace who, spending a lifetime by the side of Dr Lim, is of great help and comfort to him. Her magical singing voice also transforms otherwise-forgettable songs into plaintive glimpses into the mind of a woman who will always be overshadowed by her husband’s first love.

The always-dependable Sebastian Tan, better known as Broadway Beng, showcases his soaring voice and impeccable diction in a variety of languages for a very charming but not very intimate portrayal of the man. However, he does capably in the challenge of reflecting the full weight of 80 years of a man’s life in just 90 minutes of stage time without intermission.

Ah yes, the length -- while the 3.5-hour original cut would have been punishing for the audience and the cast, making the decision to trim it to an unconventional 90 minutes (a musical is typically about 2 hours plus, with an interval that would give rise to an appropriately dramatic first act finale) means that the pages of history are brutally rendered impactless -- as such, the musical feels like it should be longer, and strangely enough, also somehow feels like it should be shorter.

To move things along, the chorus members thus function as sort of a Greek chorus. Through what they say to one another, we learn the historical background and what happened that wasn’t portrayed on stage. While it’s a serviceable way to condense 60-plus years of history (from 1865 to 1957) into 90 minutes, it means that your attention just has to wander for a couple of seconds and you might miss an important bit of information that would render the next scene bewildering.

Perhaps the spiels about his affection for Chinese culture and British education could have been further shortened or cut to foreground what, in my opinion, is the most relatable part of the show for local audiences -- not the love story, but Dr Lim’s Peranakan local roots and how he tried to change the ideas of Straits Chinese in Singapore to their derision.


Being of Peranakan background myself, I appreciated the effort put into recreating what Peranakans were like in bygone years (what, you mean they bound girls’ feet too? I thought only China people did that!). Thus I wished that apart from crowd-pleasing songs like “Merci Buku” and the ode to “Sambal Belachan” serving as delightful but inconsequential bon mots of Peranakan life, the show would have delved more into his interaction with the local community, and his efforts to bring them into the future.

Nevertheless, when the final act, which showed Dr Lim denounced as a traitor who collaborated with the Japanese and turning into a bit of a recluse, came around, I was somewhat exhausted from bounding across decades of history in one night. But I was also grateful that for this rarity: An original musical that could be made only in Singapore, which speaks directly to Singapore audiences, and with a top-notch cast.

Above all, I was grateful for the opportunity to go on this journey into the story of this little-known son of Singapore.

Friday, October 4, 2019

A Musical Sanctuary - 13 October 2019


Hi everyone, I am hosting a classical vocal concert at the Armenian Church on 13 October 2019, 6pm. It features talents from our music and theatre circles and a special guest from Hong Kong (Francis Wong). Other performers are Steven Ang, Jonathan Khoo, Lowell Tan and Sindy Keng, accompanied on the piano by Francesca Lee. Please check out our page for more information. Hope to see you there!

https://amusicalsanctuary.peatix.com


Check out our exclusive interview with Hawk Liu HERE!
https://hawkliuh.wixsite.com/interviews/a-musical-santuary

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Review: MBS's 'Aladdin'


Aladdin The Musical
25 July, 2019 at The Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands
Review by Jeremy Lee

The year of Disney is upon us, what with live-action remakes of the studio’s classic movies Aladdin and The Lion King in cinemas, and the sequel to megahit Frozen coming later this year.

So what better time for the good folks at Base Entertainment Asia to bring in Aladdin The Musical?

An important distinction: The mega production running at the Marina Bay Sands till Sept 1 is a musical remake of the 1992 animated film, not the live-action film that was released a few months ago. What’s the difference? You won’t find “Speechless”, a new song for Jasmine written for the film, in the MBS show -- but instead you’ll be treated to 7 new songs, 3 of which were written for the film but cut.

Also, while the live-action film largely keeps to the plot of the 1992 film, the MBS show has new characters! Enter Babkak, Omar and Kassim, Aladdin friends and fellow thieves. They provide welcome comic relief, and their addition means more song and dance numbers, more witty lines and more colourful costumes. Jafar’s sidekick Iago, a parrot in the original film, is now a human being with his own hilarious comebacks.

So why should audiences who have already seen the animated movie and/or the live-action remake in cinemas shell out to watch Aladdin The Musical? We can think of a few reasons:


1. Asian bragging rights

This is where we have bragging rights over our regional friends -- this production, which started in Sydney in 2016, is ending its tour by making a special stop outside of Australia and New Zealand to perform on our sunny island. That means if you miss this chance, who knows when you might be able to see this show without having to make a journey to the West?

2. New songs

As mentioned earlier, loads of spanking-new songs have been included in the stage production. All the songs you know and love, from Arabian Nights to A Whole New World, are there of course, but you may not have heard of Proud Of Your Boy, which was actually written for the animated film but cut and replaced by One Jump Ahead. Its triumphant return in the stage musical means that audiences can finally catch the song as it takes its rightful place in the show.

And if you can’t get wait till Act 2’s A Whole New World to hear Aladdin and Jasmine sing together, you will love A Million Miles Away, a new song written for the musical, where the lovebirds sing together moments after meeting for the first time.

3. Big, bigger, biggest

This show is BIG. According to the production crew, it’s the biggest show to ever be brought in to the Sands Theatre. To give a sense of the sheer magnitude of the production, some of the stuff brought into Singapore includes 20 tons of hanging scenery, over 150 moving lights and more than 100 automatic scenic effects. It’s almost as if they moved the entire Cave of Wonders to Singapore!

And the attention to detail is incredible, especially in the gorgeous and intricately designed costumes -- all 337 of them, some of which spend mere seconds on stage. They are made up of a total of 1,225 different fabrics and 712 different styles of beads, and also comprise 161 pairs of custom-made shoes. They are heavy and pricey too -- one single pair of men’s pants features 1,428 Swarovski cystals.

How can there be so much time to show off so many costumes? It helps that there are 108 costume changes that take place is less than 1 minute, and 58 more costume changes that take place in less than 30 seconds.

The multiple set and costume changes mean that almost every song and dance number is backed with the necessary spectacle, glitz and razzle-dazzle that harks back to the good old days of musical theatre, treating the audience to eye candy in every scene -- especially showstoppers like Friend Like Me, Prince Ali and A Whole New World.

And about the famous scene where Jasmine hops onto Aladdin’s magic carpet: If you were wondering whether they would be able to recreate the enchanting jaunt on stage, let’s just say that they did, and in an appropriately spellbinding fashion. It’s clear the crowd who watched the show with us during the gala night weren’t disappointed, judging from the “oohs” and “aahs” we heard. How did they do it? Words can’t adequately describe it here, so you’ll just have to watch the show to find out!


4. Top-notch cast

To be able to perform in a Disney musical, one must be one of the best talents in the world, and the cast that has been assembled for this production is no exception, as there isn’t a weak performer in the bunch.

While Graeme Isaako brings back the playfulness and charm into his version of Aladdin, the beautiful Shubshri Kandiah is a breath of fresh air as Princess Jasmine, with a sweet but strong voice and a regal stage presence.

It’s Gareth Jacobs, however, who steals the show as everyone’s favourite character, the Genie. He does admirably in the daunting task of taking on a role made famous by the legendary Robin Williams, pulling it off with charisma, gregariousness and flamboyance that makes the audience look forward to his every appearance and each witty comeback. In fact, one might say he has made the role his own with a take on the Genie that is campier and edgier, but never without humour and good naturedness. In his most anticipated Friend Like Me sequence, he infuses his lines with knowing in jokes delivered at breakneck speed, seemingly irrepressible as he tap dances, riffs and even reprises classic tunes from other Disney musicals (those of you who love Beauty And The Beast, you’re in for a treat).

Speaking of camp, one can’t neglect to mention Jafar (Patrick R. Brown), who plays the archetypal villain with obvious relish, alongside his foil Iago (Doron Chester), a thuggish parrot converted into comic relief.

More comic relief can be found in Aladdin’s friends Babkak (Troy Sussman), Omar (Adam Di Martino) and Kassim (Rob Mallet), originally planned for the 1992 film but replaced by the monkey Abu. While they are obvious stereotypes, they also provide much of the musical’s throwaway jokes and are behind two big numbers Babkak, Omar, Aladdin, Kassim and High Adventure.

We’re sure that these four reasons we conjured up are enough to get you down to theatre if you haven’t already booked your show, but in case you’re still dithering, we can say that while we entered the theatre with high hopes given the usual standards of a Disney musical, what we saw exceeded our already-lofty expectations, and that’s saying a lot. This is a show for the ages and simply unmissable.

Aladdin runs till 1 September 2019 at the Sands Theatre of Marina Bay Sands. Tickets are available at https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/aladdin0919.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Aladdin at MBS - Running till 1 Sep 2019


Disney's Aladdin has finally opened in Singapore, and the feedback has been tremendous! With sumptious sets and costumes, beautiful singing and breathtaking dancing and stunts, this production takes us back to a magical fairyland as told in the classic Arabian Nights. Check out Hawk Liu's report on the media call and gala night below, and see for yourself what all the excitement is all about!



Want to see more? Check out the official trailer from MBS below!





Also, check out our exclusive production images on our Facebook Group:
https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=oa.2315985931770054&type=3

So hesitate no more, get your tickets at SISTIC (https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/aladdin0919) NOW!  

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Review: 'Happy Waiting' by Grain Performance and Research Lab

Happy Waiting by Grain Performance and Research Lab
12 July, 2019 at Stamford Arts Centre
Review by Jeremy Lee
Photo credit: Gordon Tan

Happy Waiting, playwright Beverly Yuen’s follow-up to 2016’s Sleeping Naked, is a marked contrast to the effort of three years ago.

While Sleeping Naked was a lively domestic drama about a family with dubious sleeping arrangements, Happy Waiting, directed by Bernice Lee, is a far more languid affair.

Yuen was inspired by Samuel Beckett’s seminal Waiting For Godot, and that should give us a clue as to what’s in store -- after all, in that 1953 existentialist masterpiece, two men are waiting for the titular “Godot” who never arrives.


Vicky (Sonia Kwek), our heroine in Happy Waiting, is similarly waiting in vain for her husband. However, unlike the heroes of Waiting For Godot, not only does she not have a companion in her wait, she doesn’t even have freedom of movement -- she spends the whole play stuck in a “mound” with a curious red lights in front that make it look like a spaceship unsuccessfully playing hide-and-seek in a mountain.

In fact, we don’t even see her face in the first half of the play -- just her stiletto-clad feet and her hands. It’s as if the long wait has caused her to lose herself in the “mound” -- of her own existential angst and aspirations -- so much so that even her body has been subsumed and become inconsequential.



We do hear Vicky’s voice though -- devoid of a companion, she merrily speaks to herself with relentless chirpiness and unbelievingly boundless optimism despite her bleak situation.

Kwek does an admirable job in what must be a physically uncomfortable role, but her constant cheerfulness amid a seemingly hopeless wait starts to become grating after a while. How refreshing it would have been to hear Vicky say something sarcastic, or angry even, just to give us a glimpse into an inner world of frustration and confusion -- but all we get is her prattling on about what she is doing today, talking to her absent husband about banal topics like dinner plans, or reminiscing about the past.

Luckily, Kwek has an appealing presence and winning smile (at least when we can see her face), as such we can almost forgive Vicky’s robotic cheerfulness. The only hint at her despair comes when, in a drunken stupor, she guffaws at her own joke for a little too long and a little too hard, and crosses the line between laughing and crying.

And thankfully, while Vicky is incapable of freedom of movement but very capable of yakking away, a man occasionally appears to break the monotony -- not her husband, alas, but a mysterious and mostly silent dancer named Bobo (Neo Yan Zong) who is just the opposite: Incapable of more than grunts but very capable of moving around.


Who is Bobo? Is he an extension of Vicky’s thoughts? Or is he a knight in shining armour who will eventually rescue Vicky from eternal solitude and the audience from our languor? It’s not fully explained, and we guess he’s up to us to interpret.

But at least Neo’s dancing is spellbinding -- when he appears, he enchants in a variety of styles and costumes, and makes the wait for his next appearance worth it.

And perhaps Bobo, just like the characters that appear to distract our protagonists in Waiting For Godot, is the manifestation of the beauty but transience of life that passes us by, rendering our existence fruitless: In the end, there’s a glimmer of hope when he finally notices Vicky and moves towards her -- in his attention, will she find meaning and something else to obsess over? But he pulls away, and we are left disappointed when her tedium repeats itself again the next day.


For Happy Waiting, like Waiting For Godot, is about the frivolous hopes of man and how ultimately inconsequential we end up being. It’s admittedly a tough theme to appeal to a local audience, and we have to hand it to Grain Performance and Research Lab for tackling it.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Review: Phantom of the Opera


Review by Jeremy Lee

This show needs no introduction, whether you’re a musical theatre nerd or casual show goer. Even millennials whose idea of legit musical theatre is Hamilton, The Book of Mormon or Dear Evan Hansen would surely know and love what has been dubbed the world’s most popular musical. And now classic favourite The Phantom of the Opera is back in Singapore, having been playing at the Marina Bay Sands since April courtesy of the folks at Base Entertainment Asia, we can let its lush melodies and gothic stylings enchant us once again.

Arguably Andrew Lloyd Webber’s greatest work, Phantom has won accolades galore, including Tony and Olivier Awards. It’s also the longest-running show in Broadway history, having opened in January 1988 and is still currently running now after more than 30 years. Yup, a baby born on its opening night would be a full-grown adult by now.

But people don’t watch the show for its awards, they watch it for an unparalleled experience; a few hours immersed in the world of the Paris Opera House and the dangerous games of the Phantom. So how does the current production running in Singapore match up?


The good news is what we love about the epic musical is still there -- the hit songs of course, the gorgeous costumes and the dark yet hauntingly beautiful sets (the Phantom’s labyrinth with candles and a pipe organ, the roof of the opera house with a creepy angel watching over proceedings and a forlorn cemetery). The famous chandelier is still there, and it still (spolier alert) plunges at the end of Act 1, though a bit too slowly for my taste -- we’re told that its speed depends on the production and venue.

Nevertheless, while all the good things we have come to love about the show remain there have been some changes. The sets and costumes have been updated, as well as the special effects and technology. (Real theatrical magic is required for The Phantom to vanish in a puff of smoke during the masquerade ball, you know.) Rest assured, though, audiences won’t notice any decline in the wonder and magic of the show.

And what of the performances? Jonathan Roxmouth as the titular Phantom is enchanting and a delight to watch and listen to. A consummate actor indeed, despite his handsome face being tragically covered by a mask and grotesque stage make-up, he conveys the protagonist/antagonist’s magnetic appeal and deadly pathos with just his voice and his body language. One can almost swim in his passion for Christine and his desire for a normal life.

Additionally, Roxmouth makes the role his own by eschewing the breathy yet ethereal vocals of original Phantom Michael Crawford, instead twirling his strong and commanding voice around each luscious note of the score. With his performance, he shows himself to be one of the best Phantoms the world has had the privilege of watching.

While Meghan Picerno as Christine looks the part, with her dewy eyes portraying the hapless heroine to a tee. Vocally, however, she doesn’t nail the high notes as effortlessly as you would think Christine would. However, the role is a tough act to follow -- how many can match up to the distinctive voice of original Christine Sarah Brightman?


Matt Leisy as Raoul has a strong, pleasing voice and boyish charm that instantly gives him a rapport with the equally bright-eyed Christine and makes their romance believable. Unsurprisingly, the youthful-looking British-American is more convincing in his scenes romancing Christine than plotting with the owners to bring down the Phantom.

Among the supporting characters, Beverley Chiat stands out as prima donna Carlotta. In a role designed to be the comic relief scene-stealer, Chiat hams it up superbly, with her most raucous scenes as the foil to Christine as they perform in the fictional opera Il Muto (the famous croaking scene) and her snide remarks while rehearsing for Don Juan Triumphant. It’s to her credit that she manages to stand out during these minor scenes, and in fact, her amazing voice, which scales piercing heights with ease, will make the audience wonder how Christine is supposed to be the better singer.

Despite this being the fourth time the Phantom has graced our shores, the quality of the productions that come in and our love for the musical show no signs of diminishing -- the show opened to a roaring crowd, many of whom we suspect have seen the show more than once. The show is running till 8 June, so if you haven’t seen the current run yet, or if you want to catch a repeat performance, there’s limited time left to secure tickets!



Phantom of the Opera runs till 8 June 2019. Tickets are available at SISTIC!

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Phantom of the Opera Cast and Creative Team Interviews


Phantom of the Opera is back at MBS's Sand's Theatre. We were there to interview the cast and production team. Check out our interviews by Hawk Liu below!

Firstly, we speak to Matt Leisy who plays Raoul in thos production. A classically trained who found a career in professional musical theatre, he shares with us how his performance journey has brought him to our shores in one of musical theatre's most famous shows.



Next, we speak to the creative team: Rainer Fried (assistant director), Gigi Jee Hyun Noh (resident choreographer, ballet swing) and David Andrews Rogers (musical director), discussing the challenges of bringing this iconic piece of theatre and music to life along with the high expectiations of the audiences.



Enticing isn't it? Why not check out the show yourself? Get your tickets now at SISTIC!