The LKY Musical
30 July 2015
Sands Theatre, Marina Bay Sands
21 July – 16 August 2015
To call The LKY Musical a biopic about Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, is a misnomer. It is a portmanteau consisting of biography and motion picture. However, if we were to exercise some poetic license and see it as a biographical epic, it is somewhat apt.
I say somewhat because it spans an epic sweep of historical events but its staging does not match up to it. For starters, the Sands Theatre is badly designed. With its small stage, grey interiors, and bad acoustics, it feels like someone decided to convert a warehouse into a “theatre” on a whim. It is clearly designed for cheap entertainment and artistry is a mere afterthought—like belching after drinking too much beer from a plastic cup.
To deal with space constraints, set designer takis makes use of every inch with a three-level structure that has six rooms. Toss in sliding screens with projections and the audience is whizzed from a shelter where rickshaw pullers reside to Lee’s residence in Cambridge.
Yet, ingenuity can only go so far.
The actors are visibly hemmed in by whatever remains of downstage and the size of each room. To make matters worse, the major events from Lee at Raffles leading up to his time in Cambridge zipped past at breakneck speed. The ensemble could hardly settle into their roles and it is merely a notch above someone walking across the stage with a flashcard saying “Japanese Occupation” and sounds of bombs going off in the background.
Despite these flaws, this musical scores enough brownie points to warrant more than two hours of your time if you have some to spare.
Adrian Pang’s versatility truly knows no bounds. While he does not adopt every single behavioural tick of Lee Kuan Yew, he exudes Lee’s unmistakable presence when delivering a political speech. With his body tilted at an angle and chest puffed up, he marshals voters to the polling station as he goes head on against his former comrade turned opponent, Lim Chin Siong.
Benjamin Chow’s Lim Chin Siong certainly matches up to Pang’s Lee. Rather than play the radical hothead as described in history textbooks, Chow’s Lim possesses political cunning and daring which makes him a formidable opponent of Lee Kuan Yew. Chow must also be commended for his ability to maintain his Chinese accented English when singing without compromising on his diction.
Radhi Khalid’s Tunku Abdul Rahman, Malaya’s Prime Minister, is a nice counterpoint to Lee Kuan Yew. Khalid’s gentle cadences as he glides effortlessly through his lines is contrasted with Pang’s pointed attack—an indication of Lee’s no-nonsense approach to politics. While Tunku’s insistence on playing poker rather than discussing politics may be superficially read as insouciance, it is a gentle insistence on the incompatibility of Lee’s egalitarian ideals and Tunku’s racial politics. To discuss it further would unnecessarily sour the already tenuous relationship.
Other notable performers are Sebestian Tan as Teong Koo the optimistic rickshaw puller and Vester Ng as Ng Kai, the naïve and eager union leader of the rickshaw pullers. While Edward Choy (Goh Keng Swee), Dayal Gian Singh (Rajaratnam), and Tan Shou Chen (Toh Chin Chye) gave credible performances in their supporting roles, it is a waste that their characters are not developed further which is an injustice to the legacies of these giants in Singapore history.
Sharon Au as Lee’s wife, Kwa Geok Choo, is clearly doing her best. Unfortunately, her best is not enough as her studied approach and weak singing makes it look as if the decision to cast her is to boost ticket sales by luring her fans to the theatre.
While Dick Lee’s music heightens the atmosphere at important points, the styles are too varied for one to discern a particular motif that defines the musical. Stephen Clark offers witty lyrics such as Lee describing one of the reason he loves his wife is that she is supportive and often makes her ideas seemed like his. However, due to the dismal acoustics of the venue or incompatible levels on the sound console, one will miss it unless an effort is taken to listen intently.
With Lee Kuan Yew’s recent demise and the excitement of the upcoming election, the musical is inextricably tangled over concerns of its historical accuracy and intent. My colleagues seem to adopt either an apologist stance or deem that the musical as an unsuitable genre.
The LKY Musical depicts events as it happened generally and is careful not to over-valourise the man—it neither beats the drum of the official narrative nor poses a distinct challenge to it. Additionally, it has no pretentions of showing “The Singapore Story” which is made abundantly clear through its uninspiring title. As an art work, it generally entertains and I have detailed where it is lacking.
The performing arts cannot replace the work of the historians which is where you should go for nuances and interpretations of events. At the very least, one hopes that it sparks an interest in those whose only acquaintance with the narrative is through the stilted words of a heavily regulated history textbook.