I love musicals and a time in my younger days, the stage was my home, so when I was invited to watch Forbidden City the musical by a friend who is also a cast member of the show, I could not say no. It was a chance not only to support the local theatre scene, I also want to see for myself, the highly appraised Singapore musical.
The musical takes us on a journey of the Empress Cixi’s life story, as told by herself to the portrait painter – Kate Carl, played by Steffanie Leigh. Kate’s initial perception, or rather, what she had gathered from the public; of Empress Cixi, was a cold and ruthless ruler who was obsessed by the power that she killed her biological son. However, Kate soon found out from the Empress herself that behind the thick walls of the palace and the veils of mysteries, Cixi’s story was much a tale of injustice and tragedy that she had to suffer in her lifetime.
While I have not been to any previous staging of the Forbidden City the Musical, it was very obvious that many theatre-goers were there to watch Kit Chan sing. However, they were only greeted with her voice from Act Two of the show, and only with a couple of solo numbers.
However, while Kit Chan was the box office guarantee, it was very clear to see the theatre shifted their focuses on the younger and talented cast. I felt this was way overdue and they should be the stars of this 2017 version of the musical.
Talented Young and Upcoming
The musical had cast many young talents that one should be listening or looking forward to.
Cheryl Tan as Young Yehenara
For instance, the young Yehenara, played by Cheryl Tan, stole first half of the show with her youth and song. With her background as a vocalist, listening to her was easy, all her words of the lyrics were crisp and clear. Her enunciation of her lyrics and script were very strong, and it really helped when you perform on stage since one has to really project her voice out to the vast audience veiled in the absence of light.
There were lots of room for improvement, in my opinion; she needed to let loose her need to enunciate and project her feelings through her voice because every intonation of a voice plays out the emotion of the character.
Since it’s theatre, projection of every kind fills up your stage presence, in terms of body language, voice and even facial expressions — exaggerated it may seem to be in front of the mirror — is vital to allow everyone to encapsulate the soul of the character played on stage.
Benjamin Chow as Prince Tun
My previous memory of Benjamin on stage was in the Lee Kwan Yew Musical where he played the left-wing Lim Chin Siong. His acting and voice left a deep impression. I still remembered when the number ‘Look at him there’ when he and Adrain Pang shared when they sang the song of their envy and respect to each other.
Benjamin’s specialty was definitely his very rugged and rough voice which very much a vocal symbol of anything egoist or manly.
In the Forbidden City, his role of Prince Tun was without a doubt a role of egoism, ambition and jealousy; which his voice suitably portrayed the character. He had illustrated very well with his voice of a Duke’s anger and frustration in the musical numbers ‘Now China has a son’ and ‘The land of our Fathers’.
While he had an abundance of power in his voice, I felt his stage presence was a little weak. I may be wrong, as it may have been director’s direction on his character. I felt that while Prince Tun made himself as small as possible in front of the Empress, his ego should fill the stage when he does his solo number. I did not really felt that ambitious prince from his performance but rather a jealous Prince Tun with an empty pride. If that was the direction from the director, I would say he had nailed it.
Their combined voices screamed YOUNG and LOCAL! I have to applaud the young band of ladies and gentlemen who sang their hearts out collectively throughout the musical. I thoroughly enjoyed the ladies when they were portraying the young demure concubines and of course, those defining curves and seductive poses of the brothel ladies. Also not forgetting — a shout-out to my friend Peps Goh and his martial arts inclined team who were backflipping from stage right to stage left or from down stage to up stage, bringing some ‘Yang’ to the show.
Set and Direction
I pride that the production has decided to go local, and the standards of these local artists’ work are good to be compared to Broadway standards. Even so, there is much room for improvement.
If this show were to go on a full-fledged round-the-world tour, there was much more needed to be done than what they had improved on thus far.
Let’s start with what I loved. The mobile and fluid set of what seemed to mimic the traditional rice paper doors was the salient piece on stage. The clever movement of those doors created scenes to depict rooms and corners of the Palace, and also gave a three dimension perspective (especially at the beginning of the show when Kate met the Empress). They were also entrances for the actors and actresses to enter, which I would absolutely love rather than entering and exit through the stage wings.
While it helped to significantly reduce the nunber of set changes in the show, I felt the stage looked almost bare. The only time I felt it was colourful and vibrant was when they depict the Summer Palace in their early days.
What I wish they could have done more: Layers. During the funeral procession scene of the Emperor, the cast walked through almost five of six wings to the back of the stage before they fully exited. The Esplanade stage has the space capability for the set designer to play with layers.
Two of my favourite musicals that played with layers were Wicked and Phantom.
Both musicals played up to four or five layers, with many intricate designs bombarding the visual senses. Layering allows the story to be multifaceted; and allows the director of the show to become more creative with his direction, which in turn would create a more fascinating performance. I remembered in both musicals, the characters were able to weave in and out of the different layers, depicting their long and arduous journey (to escape or down the dungeon).
If the Forbidden City wishes to take the international stage, they need to ramp up the game on their stage set.
Light and Sound
I spotted a few light cues going off sync by a second or two, which was slightly annoying for me because it lost its impact. The follow spot had also lost its tracking twice throughout the show. I am unsure if the stage manager was a little off cue or that system was automatic (I could not turn around and spot the light without disturbing other audience) but it was more annoying for me visually compared to sound distortion I had experienced in MBS.
Nevertheless, the lighting design for the show really helped to compensate the sparse stage set, playing with coloured lights and shadows on the door panels. The colours brought life to the plain panels, creating the mood of the Palace, like the walls of the Forbidden City had a personality and soul of its own.
Sound wise, I have no complaints really. However, I was slightly disappointed that acoustics made the live orchestra sounded by piped music, otherwise, it was definitely music to my ears.
So, is it a good musical to watch? Definitely. I will highly recommend this show for first-timers watching the show.
For the rest of the regular goers, if you have watched it before, I recommend you to place your focus on the young and local talents in the show in this 2017 version of the musical. I found it fairly difficult to see local talents performing on such a big scale and I felt it was time to recognise them — these are the result of the Singapore Art Scene putting in those precious time and effort in blossoming new and rising theatre stars.
So, if you are still hesitating, don’t. The show closes on 27th August 2017 and you only have a few days left before it is completely over.
Forbidden City – Portrait of an Empress
For more information, visit website: https://www.esplanade.com/events/2017/forbidden-city-portrait-of-an-empress
See ya on my next journey!
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