Theatre review: Guest star Mark Lee shines in an otherwise disappointing Great World Cabaret

So far, a major part of SG50 has involved celebrating everything Singapore has destroyed in its march of progress, from kampung living to our homegrown rock music scene. Great World Cabaret at Resorts World Theatre continues this trend, striving to recreate the thrill of the now-demolished Great World Amusement Park's variety shows.

The result is a mixed bag. This reviewer's favourite scene features a medley of Mandarin and Malay songs, performed by striptease star Rose Chan (Seong Hui Xuan), keroncong queen Kartina Dahari (Aisyah Aziz), and a-go-go idol Sakura Teng (Joanna Dong). The nostalgic strains of Rose, Rose, I Love You and Bunga Melur, combined with dazzling costumes and mass dances, have the audience clapping with joy.

Also laudable are the gymnastic feats of the Qing Dao Acrobatic Troupe and the Drunken Sailors - though it is a stretch to believe the latter are merely sailors on shore leave. The magic show by J.C. Sum is pedestrian, but works well as a tribute to the cabaret's old magic acts.

Yet the production often misses the mark. Consider how the score is dominated by English language songs - a rarity in the cabaret - while only one Malay song and zero dialect songs are featured. Baby boomers are bound to find this inauthentic.

The framing story also disappoints. Its premise is decent: an old security guard, Simon Tay (Shane Mardjuki) closes up an exhibition about Great World and is transported to the days of his youth, when he was the cabaret host. But Mardjuki is stilted in his Singlish, unconvincing as a grumpy senior and quite lacking the charm and cheekiness that makes for a lovable emcee. Between scenes, when he describes his growing relationship with a taxi girl, we find ourselves barely invested in his romance.

The show's real star is Mark Lee, who brings down the house with his ribald, Hokkien-infused stand-up comedy. He plays Valentiko, a gangster-turned-laundryman whose tales of taxi girls' smelly underwear truly give us a sense of the amusement park's rambunctious spirit. He is, however, a guest performer. In the coming weeks, Hossan Leong, Sebastian Tan, then Judee Tan will take his place. Can they fill his shoes?

Great World Cabaret is, by and large, an entertaining show. Still, one expects better things from a Dream Academy production, especially one produced and created by Selena Tan and scripted by Alfian Sa'at. When the curtain falls, one remains unconvinced that the good old days truly were all that "great".