Starlight shines bright in Tropicana

Tropicana’s set, script and music are designed with impressive economy.
Tropicana’s set, script and music are designed with impressive economy. PHOTO: JACQUELINE CHANG

The younger cast show grit and guts in this polished musical that pays homage to Singapore’s notorious nightclub of yesteryear



Capitol Theatre/Last Saturday

Whatever one might think of an owner of a topless cabaret club, the word “principled” would not spring to mind.

Yet Reggie “Mr Reg” Sim, the fictitious protagonist of this musical based on Singapore’s notorious Tropicana nightclub of yesteryear, is exactly that, an honourable and nurturing presence to his bevy of sashaying showgirls and bustling crew of hostesses, cashiers, kitchen hands and cleaners.

Former employees of the real Tropicana in Scotts Road – where Pacific Plaza is today – who took up four rows of the theatre last Saturday evening, said Lim Yu- Beng’s portrayal of Sim recalled well their beloved boss Shaw Sun Ching.

The former staff members who attended included medical clinic assistant Helen Koh and retiree Margaret Au, both in their 60s. Madam Au, for one, was the captain of Tropicana’s Orchid Lantern restaurant from the day the club opened in 1968 till the day it shuttered in 1989.

The late Mr Shaw’s son, Preston, was also in the audience that evening and was, in fact, the one treating them to the amble down memory lane.

Tan Kheng Hua’s lion-hearted production of the defunct nightclub’s salad days focused on the lives and loves of the humble folk who ensured that South-east Asia’s first Las Vegas-like hot spot was jampacked night after night.

She and the show’s spunky director Beatrice Chia-Richmond had with them formidable talents such as socially conscious playwright Haresh Sharma; the utterly tasteful set designer Tan Ju Meng, with his doffs to Art Deco; costume designers Tube Gallery; the instinctive choreographer Jeffrey Tan; and the luminous, unshowy virtuosity of composer Julian Wong.

Tube Gallery had the audience doing a double take at the sequinned brassieres sported by the dancers, which made them seem bare-chested.

But for all their lavish trappings, the scenes at the re-enacted Tropicana pale against those at the musical’s other nightclub, the rough-and-ready Starlight, which champions “live”, made-in-Singapore music, but whose long-haired, loose-living musicians and giggoers are soon the target of Singapore’s overzealous moral and actual police.

Starlight is the real Singapore in all its gritty and gutsy glory, of Singaporeans who aim high, do their darnedest and, as the libretto has it, “move on”.

The Starlight scenes were scintillating because they were dominated by this musical’s younger stars, whose performances far outstripped the older ones, marking perhaps the passing on of Singapore theatre’s baton to a new generation.

The audience’s spontaneous applause throughout Act II said it all, the second act being perkier than the first simply because it spotlighted the younger among the cast.

Audrey Luo as Amanda, the owner of Starlight, commanded the stage with her superbly controlled and heartfelt delivery. Rizman Putra as her lover Jeff was a comic riot, and when he partnered Brendon Fernandez (unrecognisable as the lovable lounge lizard Vernon) in a robotic dance signifying futility, the moment was pure magic.

As Ima the ambitious cashier, Siti Khalijah Zainal was in top form, winsome and authoritative all at once.

There were exceptions. Sharda Harrison as the tragic, larger-than life Pinky, a cabaret dancer addled by drink and drugs, delivered an exaggerated performance of guttural sneers that left little to the imagination. Joshua Lim as kitchen help Sat Kee hammed things up slickly, but flubbed lines, showing that he was thinking, rather than inhabiting, his character. Despite being dressed to the nines, Seong Hui Xuan barely registered her presence.

Veteran actor Lim, who is Tan’s husband, and Karen Tan as his sidekick Katherine, spouted their lines at, not to, each other, which rather took the sting out of Sharma’s poignant lines.

The exceptional seasoned actor this evening was Ebi Shankara as Muthu, Tropicana’s hustling talentspotter who is a thug turned good. He warbled and waddled like the best of them, lending the show much humour and heart.

The one head-scratcher about Sharma’s script was the oft-gratuitous profanity throughout, chiefly the use of the f-word and its variants. If the audience had downed a shot every time a character cursed, it would have been too sozzled to leave the theatre.

The marvellous economy with which the set, script and music were designed and used is a model other theatremakers should follow.

Wong’s strong, luminous scoring inspired gorgeous harmonies from the cast, especially on Send Me A Dream and I Swear On Ganja, the last of which was done against a backdrop of swirling marijuana leaves.

All in all, Tan Kheng Hua’s Tropicana was all polish, no spit and true to the never-say-die spirit of Singapore.

Amid rapturous applause, the cast and crew presented her with her Best Actress trophy from the Life Theatre Awards, whose ceremony last Monday she had forgone to concentrate on rehearsals for the show.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 17, 2017, with the headline 'Starlight shines bright in Tropicana'. Print Edition | Subscribe