Theatre review: Kitschy Singapura: The Musical barely does Singapore history justice

David Bianco and Marian Santiago in Singapura: The Musical. Its opening night was marred by a never-ending slew of technical glitches. -- PHOTO: SINGAPURA: THE MUSICAL
David Bianco and Marian Santiago in Singapura: The Musical. Its opening night was marred by a never-ending slew of technical glitches. -- PHOTO: SINGAPURA: THE MUSICAL

The Broadway musical has had a long history of appropriating the tumultuous histories and strong personalities of other countries. Miss Saigon thrived against the backdrop of the Vietnam War, Les Miserables ran high on the current of Paris' 1832 June Rebellion.

In Singapore, we've done our share of borrowing as well, with Singaporean actors gutsily taking on the story of Thailand's Chang & Eng (1997), as well as China's Empress Dowager Cixi (Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress, 2002), which critics warmed to eventually and audiences flocked to see.

To see our own history used as source material for a musical is not entirely new - Dick Lee's Man Of Letters (2006) dealt with the student riots of the 1950s - but I had hoped that with some distance from the weight of our history, 4th Wall Theatre Company's composer-creator Ed Gatchalian and scriptwriter Joel Trinidad, both from the Philippines, as well as American director Greg Ganakas, might have been able to shed some light on stories I had not heard before in the period of the 1950s and 1960s, when Singapore was on the rocky road to independence.

I was wrong.

Singapura just cannot decide what Singapore story it wants to tell. Does it want to be a sweeping historical epic, slathering on the facts and numbers and squeezing in every historical checkpoint it can manage? Does it want to be the story of an ordinary Singaporean family, struggling to make ends meet? Or does it want to be a love story between a Singaporean girl and a British soldier? Or perhaps it wants to be Lee Kuan Yew's story, the way an obliquely named "Man In White" drifts across the stage?

One could ambitiously declare that the answer is all of the above, but the result is that the sprawling musical suffers from a horrendous lack of focus, stumbling down paths it has no time to flesh out. Characters are often flat caricatures with perhaps one memorable tic and little else. Leading lady Tan Lee May (Marian Santiago), the daughter of a bus driver and a coffee shop owner, is smart. Her mother, Tan Bee Ling (Maybelle Ti), occasionally says: "So drama, you!" Apart from these single aspects of their personality, I struggled to sympathise with their thinly drawn characters, regardless of the number of emotional climaxes they were amply given.

The creative team interviewed dozens of real-life Singaporeans for their stories, but it hardly feels as if these tales were given justice, because they had no proper vehicle to carry them. During a scene on the Hock Lee Bus Riots, various ensemble members narrated brief stories of the various "ordinary people" who had been injured or killed. But it felt tacked on, as though they were obliged to include a story or two to prove that real people were involved, after which they were quickly forgotten and left behind.

The strength of a good musical is its ability to bring out the universal in the very specific. Homegrown Dream World Productions (a branch of Dream Academy) staged Stephen Sondheim's Company in 2012, and that bachelor's tale of love and commitment in New York City felt perfectly at home in cosmopolitan Singapore. Last year, Wild Rice's Monkey Goes West took the Asian classic of the Monkey King and made it into a sweet coming-of-age tale.

Singapura took the very specific and made it even more obscure, piling on the facts so thick and heavy it felt like a secondary school history lesson forced into the structure of a musical.

The musical is rarely a genre of nuance. It is a genre of spectacle, of catchy tunes, of brash demonstrations of love and choruses that can bear repeated singing. To attempt to shoehorn dense paragraphs of political reasoning or complex racial politics into a musical makes it look like a retelling of Singapore history Punch and Judy style - hitting the audience over the head with over-simplified slogans and platitudes until it physically hurts.

Not to mention the in-your-face, over-literal selection of documentary photography from the period, like a slide show from the National Archives playing silently in the background, an almost lazy reliance on multimedia to set the mood rather than drawing from plot and character. There were also some obvious reverse anachronisms - a black-and-white image meant to act as a backdrop to the Tans' kopitiam contained the very recognisable bulky rubbish bins only introduced here in more recent times.

Some lyrics sounded like they had been lifted from a Social Studies textbook and coerced into a rhyme scheme. Take the song pondering the merger between Singapore and Malaya, for instance:

Singapore possesses no resources

Agriculture wealth or industry

Leaving us alone would bring remorses

Do you really want to let us be

The music was pleasant but ultimately forgettable - and certain romantic numbers such as the lofty duet Be With Me sounded strangely familiar, as if it had been a little too heavily inspired by the soaring arias of The Phantom Of The Opera. The result is a pastiche of musical influences that, as a whole, have no distinguishing flavour.

I understand, even if reluctantly, that blockbuster musicals often come with a fair bit of racial dilution and a glaring lack of minority representation - despite Miss Saigon's rampant fetishisation of the East, Filipina actress Lea Salonga played Vietnamese bargirl Kim to critical acclaim.

But what was perhaps the most jarring was Singapura's predominantly Filipino cast poorly mimicking the complex creole of Singlish with the token "lah". This was, at its best, problematic and at its worst, in poor taste. An audience can smell token authenticity from a mile away, and while I recognise the enormous effort to sound vaguely Singaporean, the result is so distracting I would rather have listened to their original accents instead, or even General American, which should be in the repertoire of most trained actors. It would have been the more honest attempt.

There are certain moments that do stand out - I've never seen Konfrontasi played out on stage before, nor the race riots of the 1960s, and these scenes from Singapore history are rich in emotional textures and compelling personal histories. But sadly the musical bulldozes through these timelines with so little depth that every milestone in history feels like just another checkbox on the laundry list to get through.

Sadder still, the gala night was marred by a never-ending slew of technical glitches. Conductor and composer Gatchalian had to yell from the orchestra pit that the keyboards had no sound; the poor sound mixing meant that whole chunks of lyrics were inaudible, drowned out by the music; and the microphones were constantly cutting out across the course of the evening or sending jags of audio feedback when actors came too close to one another.

And while these technical hiccups can be cleaned up over time, is this a Singapore we want to see travelling the world stage? I certainly hope not.

book it

Singapura: The Musical

Where: Capitol Theatre

When: Till June 7. Tues to Sat at 7.30pm, Sat and Sun at 2.30pm and 7.30pm (except June 7). No show on Mon

Admission: $65 to $175 from (excludes booking fee)

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.