We were invited to the second gala night of Singapura The Musical last Saturday. The musical boasts double firsts: it is the first of three musicals (the other two being The LKY Musical and the Nanyang — The Musical) about Singapore to be staged this year; it is also the first performance at the newly refurbished Capitol Theatre.
Camera flashes went off as local celebrities and luminaries walked the red carpet from Stamford Road into the building. Later, during the 20 minute interval, we were treated to fancy canapés — shrimp coated with salted egg yolk, delicate bite-sized muffins, pasta on a chinese spoon, and ice cream, champers, and wine.
Produced by 4th Wall Theatre Company’s composer-creator Ed Gatchalian and scriptwriter Joel Trinidad, both from the Philippines, and helmed by award-winning New York director Greg Ganakas, Singapura The Musical tells the stories of ordinary Singaporeans during the decade of the nation’s rocky path to independence, starting from the Hock Lee bus company riots to the separation from Malaya.
We see events unfold through the lives of bus driver Tan Kok Yang, his wife Bee Ling, and their daughter Lee May. When the riots and terrorist attacks break out and their livelihood is threatened, Tan wants the family to flee to the relative safety of Malacca while Lee May is determined to complete her law school studies and remain in Singapore with her beau, British officer Lieutenant Flynn.
It is part love story, part nostalgia, part history, part inter-racial romance, part socio-political discourse. In a word? Rojak. And not the Balestier Road Hoover kind.
There are a few saving graces:
• Maybelle Ti’s portrayal of Bee Ling, who comes across as genuinely warm, approachable, and friendly, the kind of kopitiam lady-boss your mum would be friends with. The law lecturer whose crusty demeanor and caustic remarks belie a marshmallow heart. He elicited the most laughter.
• The set, which consists of fire escape stairs on scaffolding. When used well, as in the farewell scene between Lee May and her “chao ang mo” boyfriend Lieutenant Flynn, it works. The scene is — yes, long — but visually pleasing thanks to inventive use of the set to create a Cowherd and the Weaver Girl (牛郎与织女) moment with moving bridges, scaffolding, and evocative moonlit-like lighting.
But in attempting to put too much into it, the musical ended up being patchy and unfocused. The projections of ‘old’ Singapore on the backdrop did not add value to the scenes. Technically, there were problems with uneven sound that shifted in volume as the cast moved around the stage.
If you’re in the mood for a night of (purely) musical entertainment with some romance thrown in, Singapura The Musical delivers. If you’re looking for a docu-drama on Singapore’s journey towards independence, it won’t.
Ultimately, Singapura The Musical felt as if it was speeding through a checklist of Singaporean-ness — at slow-mo. The script needed corsetting, the pace needed whipping.
The final verdict after an exhausting traipse through the ‘highlights’ of the decade? “I thought there would be more about Singapore,” my nine-year-old date said. Me too, child, me too.
Singapura: The Musical is on at Capitol Theatre till 7 June 2015. Tickets (from $65 on weekdays) are available at eventClique.com. All prices exclude $3 eventClique booking fee. Children below 12 should be accompanied by a parent. No admission for children below 6 or infants in arms.