There has been a great deal of public curiosity surrounding The LKY Musical, which spells out its sole purpose quite candidly in its title. The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew once said that poetry was a luxury that Singapore could not afford. It is perhaps a sort of gentle poetic justice that there is now a musical dedicated to him.
Theatrical characters are often built in a way that makes them larger than life. They are brighter versions of ourselves and the people we know, with their magnified strengths and flaws, hopes and fears. But what happens when there is a real-life character on the stage, whose personality and reputation carry expectations and associations that far exceed any that fiction can create?
This character of Singapore's first Prime Minister rests squarely on the shoulders of an excellent Adrian Pang, and he carries the part with finesse and grace, and a deep, moving pathos that supporters will cherish and detractors will be quick to critique. Lee Kuan Yew was many different things to many different people, and the creative team behind this musical understands that a multi-faceted character must sometimes shed certain edges in order to fit the rousing story arc they have in mind. This particular story follows a 24-year arc, from Mr Lee's time in Raffles College to Singapore's independence in 1965.
In that sense, The LKY Musical doesn't try to be anything other than the biopic it promises. It ruthlessly embraces the Great Man theory of history, and its Lee Kuan Yew is at turns steely and tender, stubborn and sympathetic, intelligent and insecure. It focuses on that chest-thumping, fist-pumping emotion in earnest, churning out soaring, over-eager melodies on nation-building and hard choices. Political slogans often do not sound half as evocative when they are sung in joyful harmony. But Pang - supported by a tightly knit ensemble - often does a convincing job of smoothing over those contrivances.
This does not mean that the musical is not cheesy or deliberately sentimental; it is, in many places. (In one instance, a rickshaw driver declares, "Here, we can have big dreams!", and in another, the National Anthem makes a dutiful appearance.)
Skeptics will also point to the flattening of history, the cherry-picking of certain dramatic highs that favour the country, and the quick segues over pricklier portions of Singapore's past. I also felt some discomfort in seeing the late Tunku Abdul Rahman, former Prime Minister of Malaysia, portrayed as a dismissive figure who prioritised poker over politics. Singapore's first chief minister David Marshall gets just two mentions, as does Lim Yew Hock.
But at the same time, the musical's designated anti-hero, Lim Chin Siong, is thankfully not relegated to the ranks of villainy and one-note declarations. Recent Lasalle College of the Arts graduate Benjamin Chow does an incredible job in portraying the charismatic left-wing leader, with his compelling oratory and rapport with the common man.
He and Pang share a chemistry sadly not shared by Pang and onstage wife Sharon Au, playing a mild, entreating Madam Kwa Geok Choo. The thick dialogue, so lithe and easy in the mouths of Chow and Pang, feels clumsy and unwieldy in hers. She is a shadow of her character, struggling with musical segments and quickly fading into the background. The Lees' dramatic love story could have been an emotional cornerstone of the production, but instead becomes its stumbling block, full of mawkish exchanges that feel soppy and forced.
The musical score by Dick Lee was charming but largely vanilla, with no particularly memorable tunes that might, as Madam Kwa tells Mr Lee about their war-time glue-making efforts, "stick fast".
But director Steven Dexter, who also helmed the Singapore musicals Forbidden City (2002) and Fried Rice Paradise (2010), pulls off some marvellously intricate scenes and songs on a towering, three-storey set, including a song on Singapore's progress through the 1960s buoyed by snappy choreography and sharp ensemble work. He capitalises on a strong camaraderie among the largely male cast and squares their energies nicely against one another, such that the passing of history, while predictable, does not plod.
Novelist Meira Chand wrote the story on which playwright Tony Petito built the musical's script. Both had the unenviable task of playing historian and historiographer to a personality at once feared and admired, and they have done their best both in taking poetic license and in reserving judgment.
The LKY Musical is, perhaps, a bit like Singapore. It is a safe and law-abiding musical, efficient in its story-telling, full of clean sightlines, pleasant enough to visit, with the occasional exciting political rush and penchant for saccharine National Day songs. Its citizens may complain and criticise it all year long - but inside, you know they're singing along.
Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan
THE LKY MUSICAL
Where: Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands
When: Till Aug 16. Tue to Fri at 7.30pm. Sat at 3pm and 7.30pm. Sun at 1.30pm and 6pm. Aug 9 at 1.30pm.
Admission: $50 to $150 from Sistic (excludes booking fee; call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)