[Theatre Review] The Joy of Playing Dress-up

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Photo: Albert Lim KS / Courtesy of W!ld Rice

The Emperor’s New Clothes

W!ld Rice

21 November 2015

Drama Centre Theatre

10 November–12 December 2015

There is a difficulty in adapting the popular tale by Hans Christian Andersen as a pantomime. It needs to have wonderful costumes, it has to be fun, and—most importantly—it must not be pretentious as the main point of the story is to mock the pretentions of society.

W!ld Rice excels on all counts.

Nathan No Surname (Benjamin Kheng) and Khairul No Surname (Sezairi) are orphans who become tailors. They are commissioned by the  ministers in the hopes of getting them to create a wonderful outfit for the vainglorious Emperor Henry Lim Bay Kun (Lim Kay Siu) for free. Khairul eventually convinces Nathan that they should take it as it is a good exposure for their business. They later find out that the Emperor arrests all who take the attention away from his outfit during the National Dress Parade (NDP) and decide to teach the Emperor a lesson with his “new outfit” for the 50th NDP.

Nothing is safe from satire as Joel Tan’s witty script references Lee Kuan Yew, lawsuits against foreign media, incompetency of the ministers, ISA, banning  musical instruments during Thaipusam, mediocrity of Mediacorp dramas, SG 50, and absurdity of national day parades.

With Tan’s clever employment of puns, acronyms, and Singlish, the audience experiences a bellyache of laughs throughout the two hours. The greatest merit of this sparkling script is that it does not belabour the various criticisms that it puts across. This makes the play snappy while packing in quite a lot at the same time.

Additionally, its injection of self-deprecating jokes such as mentioning Ivana Heng, the crazy theatre director who designed a rainbow outfit for the Emperor, or the Emperor asking his Minister of Retribution (Andrew Lua) to keep tabs on Sam Willows (a band that Kheng is part of) makes it all the more delicious.

Director Pam Oei pulls out all the stops and makes her cast showcase whatever talent they have or even acquiring new ones just for the show. Most of them sing, dance, and play instruments live on stage.

Benjamin Kheng’s anxious Nathan is a nice contrast to Sezairi’s laidback Khairul. Aside from their singing which they are known for, their dancing is tight and there is a wonderful synergy between them as we can easily believe that they are “brothers from another mother.”

Lim Kay Siu (Emperor Henry Lim) brings out his youthful and vain side as he preens and poses throughout the show. Audrey Luo (Empress Jeanette How) plays the melodramatic caricature of local actress Jeanette Aw to the hilt. This could not come at a worse time as Aw is currently facing criticisms about her inability to sing in Beauty World.

Other notable performances include Siti Khalijah Zainal (Nafisa bte Jasmani, Minister of Finance), Andrew Lua’s  (Wong Bok Siu, Minister of Retribution), Benjamin Wong and his counter-tenor vocal range as the aptly named Aplhonsus Kan Sing Low, Andrew Marko as the Thai fashion reviewer, and Candice de Rozario as Arppeggio Chong.

Julian Wong keeps our toes tapping with his catchy tunes that range from joget music to the moving, ballad-like “Open Up” when the tailors and the Empress confront the Emperor. Set designer Eucien Chia adopts the comic book aesthetic by having skyscrapers pointing inwards. The monochromatic set allows costume designers Phisit and Saxit from Tube Gallery to unleash a largely neon palette onto the stage.

All these elements make for a fun, energetic, zany, and hilarious musical that calls on the powers that be to reflect on their style of governance and perhaps renew their commitment to serving the people.

With Singapore celebrating her Jubilee and witnessing a heated election, I could not think of a more befitting production to end the year. If only we could nudge our ministers into the theatre.

Other Reviews

“The Emperor’s New Clothes pantomime has audience in stitches” by Akshita Nanda, The Straits Times Life!

“The Emperor’s New Clothes: Revisiting SG50 Through the Wittiest Musical” by Sheryl Teo, Popspoken

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