Created in 1996 by composers Liang Wern Fook and Jimmy Ye, December Rains is Singapore's first Broadway-style Mandarin musical. Through a series of memorable songs, it tells a tear-jerking tale of love and self-sacrifice spanning 30 years, from the tumultuous Chinese middle school riots of the 1950s to the economic boom of the 1980s.
Director Goh Boon Teck last staged the work five years ago, with established performers Kit Chan and George Chan as the romantic leads. To mark his company's Silver Jubilee, he has revived the piece with a younger cast and a fresh aesthetic vision.
Instead of the bare, minimalist set of 2010, the audience now views the action through a slanted rectangular archway, recalling the shape of a photo frame and the skewed lens of memory. More dubiously, costumes are pastel-hued and stained with watercolour blotches. This evokes the motif of the rainy season, but also makes actors resemble survivors of a tie-dye factory explosion.
The actors themselves deliver mixed performances at first. Chriz Tong sings sweetly as schoolgirl protagonist Li Qing, but is never quite as naive or winsome as her character should be. Andie Chen is splendidly charismatic as her lover, the leftist student leader Ying Xiong - one would never suspect this is his debut on stage - yet he lacks chemistry with Tong in their lightning romance.
Thankfully, all is redeemed in the second act. Our two leads are now middle-aged and estranged, one a jaded businesswoman in Singapore and the other a hobbling survivor of Communist purges in China. Tong and Chen are thoroughly believable as these older versions of their characters, and it is devastating to witness how time has ravaged their youth, but failed to heal their heartbreak.
Sugie Phua deserves special praise for his portrayal of the lovelorn student Ming Li, whose love for and eventual betrayal of Li Qing brings undying grief to them both. Stooped and timorous, he is nevertheless the heart of the show, the character with whom we empathise most.
As a whole, December Rains holds up magnificently as a classic work of Singaporean theatre. In fact, it is arguably more moving than the recent deluge of historical musicals, namely Singapura: The Musical, LKY: The Musical and Nanyang: The Musical. It uses the past not to deliver a political message, but to drive home a more personal ideology. That it is not politics or prosperity, but love, and love alone, that makes life worth living.
Where: Esplanade Theatre
When: Till Sept 6 (Sun) at 8pm; Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays 3pm, no shows on Monday
Admission: $49-$129 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)