Adrian Pang to play Lee Kuan Yew in upcoming musical

Prominent local actor Adrian Pang will play young Lee Kuan Yew in an upcoming musical about Singapore's former Prime Minister. Pang's is the second high-profile casting for the role of the senior statesman, following Lim Kay Tong's marquee turn as Mr Lee in a Raintree Pictures film to be released later this year.

The musical, simply called The LKY Musical, will be staged by a new theatre company called Metropolitan Productions. The production, which will open this July, charts Mr Lee's formative years, first from narrowly surviving the Sook Ching massacre as a young man during the Japanese Occupation, to the development of his political career. Key episodes include the racial unrest and communist threats of the 1950s, and the nation's full independence in 1965.

The script is written by American playwright Tony Petito, the founding artistic director of the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT). It is based off a story by Indian-Swiss novelist Meira Chand who lives here, and is known for her books which explore issues of identity and belonging.

London-based Steven Dexter, who also helmed SRT's Forbidden City (2002), will direct; while local composer and Cultural Medallion winner Dick Lee will write the score.

Pang's LKY Musical, which has been in the works for three years, is not the only production interested in dramatising Mr Lee's life in the year of Singapore's Golden Jubilee. 1965, starring veteran Lim Kay Tong, is another project. The trailer of the $2.8-million film, which features Lim telling a press conference in Mr Lee's trademark crisp, Oxfordian-Peranakan accented English, has already been generating buzz.

These shows and their leading performers will undoubtedly be closely scrutinised, and even before they open, comparisons between the two actors seem inevitable. But for now, the leading men, who are widely considered to be Singapore's best actors, are ignoring the chatter.

Lim, 60, well-respected for his long stage career and his role on the iconic TV series Growing Up (1996 to 2002), says: "I'm sure that every interpretation has its own merits. So, no, I'm not nervous about comparisons. The more portrayals, the better. It's our way of paying tribute to (Mr Lee)."

Asked about how he will match up against Lim, Pang chuckles for a few seconds before answering. "I'm focused on the work, to do it as well as I can," he says. "I can't stop people from comparing and saying what they want. But from what I've seen, I am sure Kay Tong will do a marvellous job with the role."

Despite a wealth of experience for screen and stage, and three Life! Theatre Awards Best Actor wins under his belt, Pang admits that the prospect of playing the formidable politician is "daunting". He also heads his own theatre company Pangdemonium with his wife Tracie.

"I agreed to be part of this because I'm familiar with the team. I've worked with the director Steven Dexter on Forbidden City, and also with Dick Lee on other projects, so I trust them to put together a solid production," he says.

"This piece will attempt to show Mr Lee as a young man full of passion, ideals and great hopes, as well as to look at his relationship with his wife. Their relationship was a significant part of his life and shaped the man he became, so examining it will be interesting," he adds.

Metropolitan Productions company director Tan Choon Hiong declined to disclose the production budget, except that it is in the millions. He added that the actress playing late Madam Kwa Geok Choo, Mr Lee's wife, will be revealed in coming weeks.

Meanwhile, singer-songwriter Dick Lee says that the score will be one that is "lyrical, fairly acoustic and passionate". "I wanted it to match the serious subject matter, but not for it to be heavy. There's at the heart of it, a very beautiful love story. Some of my best romantic songs are in this show. It's a departure from my usual more pop-ish style, so I'm excited about this."

Lee, 58, adds: "I'm happy Adrian is doing it as he is a talented singer whose voice is seldom heard. I'm looking forward to working with him."

Other practitioners from both the arts and entertainment industry are also looking forward to seeing Pang rise to the occasion.

Film-maker Kelvin Tong, who is working with Pang on his horror film The Faith Of Anna Waters out later this year, notes how Pang, like Mr Lee, comes from a background in law. "I think Adrian will fare very well playing LKY. It's a strong and complex character, and not necessarily a completely lovable one too. LKY is a Shakespearean character and Adrian is a Shakespearean actor."

Fellow actor Lim Yu-Beng, who has worked on productions with Pang such as The Full Monty (2010), a stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning film, says of him: "Adrian is one of the most accomplished actors in town, and a fantastic singer. He has a long track record, and I know that he will be great in this."

jianxuan@sph.com.sg