Musical line-up for best costume

Nominees for Best Costume Design (clockwise from top left): Frederick Lee, Saksit Pisalasupongs and Phisit Jongnarangsin, Chen Szu-Feng and Yang Derong.
Nominees for Best Costume Design (clockwise from top left): Frederick Lee, Saksit Pisalasupongs and Phisit Jongnarangsin, Chen Szu-Feng and Yang Derong.PHOTOS: COURTESY OF FREDERICK LEE, TUBE GALLERY, COURTESY OF CHEN SZU-FENG, COURTESY OF YANG DERONG
Fashion designer Frederick Lee, who is nominated for La Cage Aux Folles (Wild Rice).
Fashion designer Frederick Lee, who is nominated for La Cage Aux Folles (Wild Rice).PHOTO: COURTESY OF FREDERICK LEE
Saksit Pisalasupongs and Phisit Jongnarangsin of Tube Gallery, who are nominated for Tropicana: The Musical (Spare Room Productions) and Mama White Snake (Wild Rice).
Saksit Pisalasupongs and Phisit Jongnarangsin of Tube Gallery, who are nominated for Tropicana: The Musical (Spare Room Productions) and Mama White Snake (Wild Rice). PHOTO: TUBE GALLERY
Chen Szu-Feng, who is nominated for Lao Jiu: The Musical (The Theatre Practice).
Chen Szu-Feng, who is nominated for Lao Jiu: The Musical (The Theatre Practice). PHOTO: COURTESY OF CHEN SZU-FENG
Yang Derong, who is nominted for Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress (Singapore Repertory Theatre and Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay).
Yang Derong, who is nominted for Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress (Singapore Repertory Theatre and Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay). PHOTO: COURTESY OF YANG DERONG

Designer Chen Szu-Feng is up against veterans Tube Gallery, Frederick Lee and Yang Derong for Best Costume Design

Musicals reign in this year's category for Best Costume Design, from revivals such as Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress and Lao Jiu: The Musical, to new productions such as Tropicana and Mama White Snake.

Bangkok-based fashion house Tube Gallery is the one to beat, with nominations for both Tropicana and Mama White Snake.

But veteran fashion designers Frederick Lee and Yang Derong are making strong comebacks with La Cage Aux Folles and Forbidden City, which they first designed for six and 16 years ago respectively.

Designer Chen Szu-Feng breaks into the shortlist for the first time with her whimsical designs for the large, loving family of the protagonist of Lao Jiu: The Musical.


Frederick Lee

Nominated for: La Cage Aux Folles (Wild Rice)

Previous nominations: Crazy Christmas Ting Tong Belles (Dream Academy, 2014), La Cage Aux Folles (Wild Rice, 2013), Boeing Boeing (Wild Rice, 2011). Honourable mention for Bent (Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble, 2004)

Previous wins: The Importance Of Being Earnest (Wild Rice, 2010)

When given the chance to costume a beloved musical for a second time, veteran fashion designer Lee knew he had to go bigger and better.

"La Cage has always been one of my favourite plays and one of the few that can show off my creativity," says the designer, 52.

He especially loves dressing the character of Albin (Ivan Heng) and his alter-ego Zaza, the flamboyant diva headlining the nightclub La Cage, which is run by his life partner George (Sean Ghazi).

When the couple's son falls in love with the daughter of a conservative politician, he plans to introduce her parents not to Albin, who raised him, but to his neglectful biological mother.

It is Lee's second nomination for La Cage at the Life Theatre Awards. The first was in 2013, though the award eventually went to Daniel Boey for the musical Company.

Clothing La Cage's outrageous entourage required more than 300 costumes, which had to survive the rigours of the show's energetic numbers.

"After one rehearsal, everything is on the floor, some of it soaking wet because the dancers have been perspiring throughout the can-can."

It took Lee 11 months to create all the costumes, including an elaborate confection for Zaza that he spent at least 30 days on, dyeing pheasant feathers and arranging them on a harness so that they fell in perfect symmetry.

"When I brought it to Ivan, he just melted.

"He became the character, just like that. It's so important for a costume to inspire an actor."


Tube Gallery

Nominated for: Tropicana The Musical (Spare Room Productions) and Mama White Snake (Wild Rice)

Previous nominations: The Emperor's New Clothes (Wild Rice, 2016), Maha Moggallana (Toy Factory, 2011)

Previous wins: Monkey Goes West (Wild Rice, 2015), 881 (Toy Factory, 2012)

Thai fashion house Tube Gallery scored two nominations this year for two wildly different productions: family pantomime Mama White Snake and the saucy sixties musical Tropicana , about the notorious nightclub of the same name.

Tropicana's topless dancing girls might not have had a lot on, but this did not make it any easier for designers Saksit Pisalasupongs , 42, and Phisit Jongnarangsin , 44.

"It had to look beautiful, yet not offensive, and also not fall off," says Saksit over the telephone from Thailand.

The dancers' costumes ranged from diamante brassieres - with rhinestones obscuring key body parts - to pasties - "anything we could find in the workshop" - stuck on with eyelash glue. Were there any slips? "During rehearsal, probably. Onstage? Not that I know of."

Worlds away from this risque regalia were their designs for Mama White Snake, a playful retelling of the ancient Chinese folk tale about snake spirits who can transform into women.

They created resplendent outfits for Mama White Snake (Glen Goei) and her best friend Auntie Green Snake (Ivan Heng), drawing from traditional Chinese opera, but not following it precisely.

"We are not opera costume makers and we would have made mistakes," points out Saksit.

Instead, they added their own touches, such as a pastel palette inspired by Peranakan design and glittering scale-like fabrics that subtly hinted at the leads' serpentine secret.

"We feel overwhelmed," he says of the double nomination.

"This is like a bonus for us after a long working year. The shows are over, but what we have done has outlived them."


Chen Szu-Feng

Nominated for: Lao Jiu: The Musical ( The Theatre Practice)

Previous nominations: None

The tale of Lao Jiu, adapted from a 1990 play by the late drama doyen Kuo Pao Kun, about a boy who longs to learn puppetry despite the disapproval of his family, spans three eras and two worlds - those of imagination and harsh reality.

Set and costume designer Chen , 41, had to make sure her 55 to 60 period-precise designs indicated which year - 1947, 1971, and 1986 - each scene was taking place in.

"Since all of them were performed by the same group of actors, it was important to distinguish the characters in each setting to prevent confusion," says the United States-based Taiwanese designer over e-mail. "The goal is to create a seamless and exceptional theatrical experience for the audience."

The director of design and theatre technology for the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of New Hampshire also designed the set and costumes for the 2012 production of the musical.

"The most challenging aspect is often making sure the artistic choices I have made will not only create a visual representation of the world of the story, but also serve the practical needs for the actors and puppeteers' movements as well as quick changes," she says.



Empress Cixi in Forbidden City was played by (from far left) Cheryl Tan, Kit Chan and Sheila Francisco. PHOTOS: COURTESY OF CHEN SZU-FENG, FREDERICK LEE AND YANG DERONG; ALBERT LIM KS, JACQUELINE CHANG, SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE, THE THEATRE PRACTICE, TUBE GALLERY, WILD RICE

Yang Derong

Nominated for: Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress (Singapore Repertory Theatre and Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay)

Previous nominations: Beauty World (Singapore Street Festival, 2016), Hotpants (produced by Annie Pek, 2015). Special mention for Forbidden City (Singapore Repertory Theatre, 2003)

Previous wins: None

Returning to Forbidden City 16 years after it first premiered is like "meeting a good, old friend whom you have not seen for a while," says fashion designer Yang . As research for costuming the woman who would become the feared Empress Cixi of China - as well as an ensemble that had to shift among being peasants, concubines, soldiers and prostitutes in mere minutes - the 52-year-old dived into books, museums, flea markets as well as movies, from Chinese and Cantonese period films to Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor (1987).

The toughest task was dressing the empress, who is portrayed by three actresses - Cheryl Tan, Kit Chan and Sheila Francisco - at the various stages of her life, from fresh-eyed concubine to dreaded dowager.

Yang allocated shades of red and gold to her to make her stand out from the ensemble, although these shades deepen from the bright vermilion of Tan as young Yehenara to maroon and ox-blood for Chan, with traces of black for Francisco.

"The link was essential so that they didn't look like three different personas on stage but, at the same time, they couldn't look like they were stuck in a time warp."

He adds: "The actors and ensemble were the real heroes. They change, get into character and go out there and shine. They made the costumes come alive."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2018, with the headline 'Musical line-up for best costume'. Print Edition | Subscribe