Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress an epic feast for the senses

Sebastian Tan (left) and Dwayne Lau are the record keepers in Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress.
Sebastian Tan (left) and Dwayne Lau are the record keepers in Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress.PHOTO: SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE

Imaginative sets, timeless music and strong cast are the hallmarks of Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress

REVIEW / MUSICAL

FORBIDDEN CITY: PORTRAIT OF AN EMPRESS

Singapore Repertory Theatre and Esplanade Theatre

Last Friday

Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress is an epic visual feast. Flying red lanterns, acrobatics and bejewelled costumes are present in plenty, but what stands out is the economical, imaginative set that uses the depth of the Esplanade Theatre stage.

Flexible frames designed by Francis O'Connor are hung with fabric to depict the opulent palaces of China. The cloth is ripped away by explosions as foreign forces invade the imperial capital (sound by Mike Walker, lighting by Rick Fisher). Mourners carrying the body of a fallen hero are visible through the slats, diminishing in the distance with the glory of Beijing.

  • BOOK IT / FORBIDDEN CITY: PORTRAIT OF AN EMPRESS

  • WHERE: Esplanade Theatre

    WHEN: Till Aug 27, 8pm (Tuesdays to Fridays), 3 & 8pm (Saturdays), 1.30 & 6pm (Sundays)

    ADMISSION: $38 to $138 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)

Moments like this, subtly accompanied by music from Dick Lee, explain why this musical is the Singapore Repertory Theatre's most-requested show. Power, politics and impassioned royals fighting to save their country - this is the true romance at the heart of this reimagining of the life of Dowager Empress Cixi.

Written by Lee and the late Stephen Clark, Forbidden City was first presented almost 15 years ago, directed then and now by Steven Dexter.

The music is timeless, the story retains the wrinkles pointed out in 2002 by then Straits Times reviewer Clarissa Oon. The first half plods, in part as it focuses on the iconic Dragon Lady as a naive girl yearning for love. (It should have shown how her political skills were honed to a knife's edge by the cut-throat atmosphere of the royal harem.)

The second half almost belongs to another musical. It discards sentiment for coups and rebellions, condensing decades of history into an hour.

Three actresses play the Empress at various stages of her life. Cheryl Tan gives the young concubine Yehenara sweet, impressive voice. Crowd-puller Kit Chan, who played Tan's role in 2002, holds up her end as the middle-aged Empress. Sheila Francisco pulls off perhaps the hardest task as the Empress Dowager. She emotes silently while other actors play scenes from her past. She is sometimes a mirror, sometimes a mature, saddened observer of her own reflection.

It would not be the Empress' show without a strong ensemble. Steffanie Leigh and Earl Carpenter are memorable as outsiders offering conflicting insights into the royal palace.

A stand-out is Yehenara's political foil and brother-in-law, Prince Tun, played by Benjamin Chow. His voice ages appropriately in between acts. He dies so well during the Boxer Rebellion that it is impossible to focus on Chan's power ballad immediately after.

Equally important are the unnamed scribes and keepers of history, played by Dwayne Lau and Sebastian Tan. They inject much- needed levity or gravitas in turn. In the first half, when they provide a stripped-down, ironic take on Chinese opera, the viewer realises that the musical is not in the genre of chinoiserie. It is unique, proudly Asian, requiring just a bit more touching up to present a historic face to the world.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2017, with the headline 'Epic feast for the senses'. Print Edition | Subscribe