• Kate Carl (Stefanie Leigh) and the Empress Dowager (Sheila Francisco) /Photo: SRT and EsplanadeTheatres on the Bay
  • American painter Kate Carl (Stefanie Leigh) met British journalist George Morrison (Earl Carpenter) on a train to Beijing. /Photo: SRT and EsplanadeTheatres on the Bay

Variations on a theme

Art September 25, 2017 01:00

By Pawit Mahasarinand
Special to The Nation

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Singapore’s beloved musical returns for another triumphant run

AS PART of its opening festival in 2002, Esplanade—Theatres on the Bay commissioned one of the country’s leading contemporary theatre companies, Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT), to create a new musical “Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress”. They joined forces again a year later and in 2006, when I watched this musical for the first time, it was met with critical and popular success.

Last month, the musical returned to Esplanade Theatre once more and, like a fine restage that never gets old as time passes, “Forbidden City” again delivered entertainment as well as its simple yet significant messages.

Composer Dick Lee’s and lyricist Stephen Clark’s book for this musical is smart to begin with. Instead of coming up with a story about this famous Chinese empress and sticking to it, they used a storytelling structure, and a musical number like “Which story do I tell?” to remind the audience that, like history itself, there’s not a single definite edition.

For example, when American artist Kate Carl was commissioned to paint a portrait of Empress Dowager Cixi, she asked her to tell the story of her life. That meant the Empress’s story was being told through the perspective of the painter, and the audience was able to see from the painting that the artist didn’t really capture everything she was told. This probably explains the fact that most of the male characters looked flat, as opposed to their female counterparts. 

The musical was not short of eye-pleasing scenes. /Photo: SRT and EsplanadeTheatres on the Bay

Three actresses from three generations portrayed the title role at different ages and it was their immaculate performances that must be credited for much of the show’s success. 

In her first major stage role, Cheryl Tan didn’t deliver a star-turning performance; she suddenly became a superstar and she was captivating and vigorous as the young Yehenara who’d do everything to become a concubine and give birth to the Emperor’s first son. It’s noteworthy that in the previous productions international star Kit Chan played Yehenara. 

This time, in the second act when Chan took over a more mature part, she added sophistication and further depth to the role amidst the tumultuous time in China. Veteran actress Sheila Francisco appeared throughout both acts as she’s the Empress the painter met and she really looked and sounded like one who had been through a lot and yet couldn’t reveal most of it.

Cheryl Tan delivered a superstar turn as young Yehenara. /Photo: SRT and EsplanadeTheatres on the Bay

Credit here is also due to the casting by director Steven Dexter who, recognising that which most musical theatre lovers need drama and some comic relief, brought a good balance to the spectacle, 

More than a decade on from the first experience, I can still recall my appreciation for Dublin-based Francis O’Connor’s set design and the joy in seeing a neutral set piece that not only worked for many different locales but also helped in speeding the scene changes. 

And on that note, “Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress” is an example of how local, regional and international creative forces are being combined by SRT. If the musical is to be restaged anytime in the future, I will definitely watch it again.



Esplanade’s annual “Moonfest: A Mid-Autumn Celebration” is from Friday to October 4, with Peking opera, traditional Chinese puppetry and music performances and many free and ticketed shows. 

As part of its da:ns series, Stuttgart Ballet performs “Romeo and Juliet” from October 12 to 14.

Dada Masilo’s “Swan Lake” and Benjamin Millepied’s LA Dance Project among the highlights of the annual da:ns festival, which runs from October 20-29. 

Find out more at www.Esplanade.com. 

SRT’s new musical “Chicken Little” opens October 25 at KC Arts Centre in Robertson Quay. 

Tickets for all are available at www.Sistic.com.sg.