Monday, 25 May 2015


by ED GATCHALIAN (Composer)
JOEL TRINIDAD (Libretto & Book)
The 4th Wall Theatre Company
Capitol Theatre
Saturday (23 May 2015)

A musical about Singapore premiering in its 50th year of independence has all the cards stacked against it, given the complex history of Singapore's rocky road to self-government, merger within the Federation of Malaysia and its subsequent ejection in 1965. It can only be more difficult when the story is told by non-Singaporeans. I am hoping not to sound chauvinistic or worse, xenophobic, but even the likes of Dick Lee and Michael Chiang would have had their hands full with such a task at hand.

So plaudits are due to Filipinos Ed Gatchalian and Joel Trinidad for doing their research on Singapore's history and their attempts to shoehorn that part of our legacy within two and a half hours of singing and acting. Their story revolves around the Tan family, comprising Hock Lee Company bus driver father Kok Yang (sung by Juliene Mendoza), kopitiam-running mother Bee Ling (Maybelle Ti) and student activist daughter Lee May (Marian Santiago), whose lives and aspirations are caught within the inexorably rolling gears of destiny.

Pragmatic Kok Yang wants to flee the communal strife erupting all around the island, while idealistic Lee May hopes to make a future in her land of birth by attending law school. Bee Ling dutifully tends to her loved ones until she decides to do some banking at MacDonald House on 10 January 1965. So the action encompasses some 10 years from 12 May 1955 to the day of Lee Kuan Yew's veil of tears on 9 August 1965. In between there are inter-racial romances, classroom sessions at Bukit Timah campus, agitators from across the Causeway and Indonesia, and appearances by a stentorial and well-spoken gentleman referred to as the Man In White (Raymund Concepcion).  

For much of the first half, Singapore of 1955 seems very much like a foreign land, something so remote it could have been Ruritania. This was not much helped by the cast trying very hard not to sound Filipino, and sprinklings of kiasu, kaya toast and the suffix -lah do not quite equate to being truly Singaporean. (The only convincing Singlish ironically came from the VIP who gave the opening speech, even if he had not intended to.) This kind of detachment already poses problems when viewed by a critical Singaporean audience demanding authenticity above everything else.

The music had its moments, the kopitiam chorus in the first act which was catchy enough, and the best duets came in the second act. The singing and ensemble work was more than satisfactory overall. Otherwise the score was caught in a repeating groove that is the 1980s West End and Broadway musical genre. Think Miss Saigon but set in Alexandra Road and Empress Place. Maybe that is what audiences expect, and that is exactly what Singapura The Musical delivered – more of the same, albeit with some variations.

Of the lead cast, only Ti's mother role evoked true sympathy, her dying scene from hospital bed to symbolically ascending the staircase to a better place was eloquently done. Santiago's Lee May could have done with better enunciation given her central role. Her love interest Lt Flynn (David Bianco, an American), who was clad in GI green rather than khaki, did not sound convincingly British enough. In the supporting cast, Noel Rayos' comic Indian accent as the always-squabbling kopitiam denizen Chandra and Law Professor Patel was a standout, providing some much needed lighter moments.

The sets were simple but effective, the kopitiam and classroom being the focus of much of the action, with three storey raised platforms accessible by stairs making up for the limited stage space. These were well utilised for the story telling but obscured certain scenes depending on where one sat. The hospital bed scene was placed on the left side of stage instead of centrally, which was a pity. This would not have happened in the final scene of La Traviata, which has more or less the same outcome. 

All too often, Singapura The Musical came across like a history lesson, with the use of real dates,  names of people who perished in the riots, UMNO and PAP logos, authentic photo-images and video footage including those of Tunku Abdul Rahman and Lee Kuan Yew. Guess who are made to look like bigoted villains? One supposes this musical will never see the light of day in Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta. There is certainly a place for history, but sometimes this came in the way of the narrative. In John Sharpley and Robert Yeo's Fences, the 2012 opera set during the same period, the role of history was better integrated into the libretto and in fewer words.

So was Singapura The Musical a success or a bomb? I tried very much to like it, but reservations remain, mostly because I could not always identify with its quintessential message – the birthing pangs of a new nation under the most trying circumstances, and the people whose lives were transformed as a result. My fault for being born nine days after the first great Sing-Mal divorce. Perhaps my parents could better relate to it. As for my son born in 2002, this might as well be paleontology.

It should however be experienced once, and that may be sufficient in itself. This is coming from a true-blooded Singaporean. About bringing it to London's West End or New York City's Broadway, as our Singlish-spouting friend had hoped, that might just be a Marina Bay Sands-sized dose of wishful-thinking.

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