Theatre review: The Rise & Fall Of Little Voice is a star vehicle for actress Mina Kaye

Cast of The Rise & Fall Of Little Voice (from left) Adrian Pang, Denise Tan, Mina Kaye, Siti Khalijah, Rishi Budhrani and Shane Mardjuki. -- FILE PHOTO: PANGDEMONIUM
Cast of The Rise & Fall Of Little Voice (from left) Adrian Pang, Denise Tan, Mina Kaye, Siti Khalijah, Rishi Budhrani and Shane Mardjuki. -- FILE PHOTO: PANGDEMONIUM

It is 1970s Singapore, loud blazers and bell-bottoms are in style, Bugis Street is full of bright young things, and in a charming nod to the discovery of hit composer Dick Lee, a nightclub owner blusters about a "wannabe" Chinese boy who sings in English and wants to perform in Japan.

This is the lively, bustling backdrop against which this local adaptation of The Rise & Fall Of Little Voice is set, a Singapore in its first decade of independence.

Like the titular character of Little Voice, it is also in search of its own artistic voice. It is a surprisingly good fit, and the script has almost been entirely rewritten to embrace the Singapore vernacular and cultural peculiarities.

But the heart of the play is the same: LV (Mina Kaye), a shy, wispy young girl, has a secret and prodigious talent for impersonating the singing voices of numerous legends, from Shirley Bassey to Judy Garland. She is discovered by the sometime boyfriend of her gratingly overbearing mother (Denise Tan) - the seedy talent scout, Ray Say (Adrian Pang), who desperately wants her to perform on stage and rake in a thick commission from her gift.

The Rise & Fall Of Little Voice is not, by any means, a particularly complex play. With its host of archetypal characters playing their traits to the hilt, the 1992 play (written by British dramatist Jim Cartwright) is more or less a Cinderella story set in the Rocking '70s, where a blossoming young woman eventually learns how to take control of her own fate.

At its best, it is a rollicking celebration of music and freedom, but at nearly three hours, it does drag with exposition and repetitive character development, slipping into the same types of conversations between characters just a little too often.

But the core of the show rests on the profound difference between LV's reticent personality and nasal speaking voice, and her utter transformation the moment she begins to sing: the ultimate validation of why one never ought to judge a book by its cover. And there is no doubt that the musical comedy is a star vehicle for young actress Kaye, who is quite the revelation as the gifted LV.

As the actress flits between uncanny and effortless impersonations of Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland, she also brings a wide-eyed innocence to the part. This is brought out sweetly by Shane Mardjuki, who plays her endearingly awkward love interest, the telephone repairman Billy.

Tan's portrayal of LV's boozy mother Mari could, I think, have been edged with a little more sympathy. Pang lends the greasy Ray Say a surprising amount of pathos - as much as he is calculated and sly, one does feel for his dashed ambitions. Mari, on the other hand, has almost no redeeming qualities and a paper-thin back story. As the villain of the show, Tan gets her bitterness down pat, but Mari's incessant loud-mouthed petulance does make scenes with her feel a lot more tedious than they actually are.

What puzzles me is the casting of actress Siti Khalijah as Mari's long-suffering neighbour and friend Fatimah. Her character is, ostensibly, a mousy sidekick who cares deeply for LV but is similarly steamrolled by Mari. Siti's infectiously charismatic stage presence makes it difficult to view her character as passive or timid, and more often than not, she comes across as some sort of servant instead of a friend, as Mari orders her about.

These questions aside, Little Voice marks the first time that Pangdemonium is localising a West End import, and director Tracie Pang shows a mostly deft hand in navigating cultural specificity without hammering the audience over the head with it. There are fun moments with actor and stand-up comedian Rishi Budhrani as nightclub owner Mr Boo, who ramps up rapport with the audience with his little comic routines and a live three-piece band to boot.

And as we travel back in time to the jaunty Boo-gis Wonderland, we see a girl learning to sing with her own voice, as there once was also a newly-minted country learning not to imitate others, but to speak for itself.

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @corrietan

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Where: Drama Centre Theatre, National Library Building Level 3

When: Till May 18, Tues to Sat at 8pm, Sat and Sun at 3pm

Admission: $40 to $88 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to

Advisory: Recommended for age 16 and above for some coarse language