[Theatre Review] Lavish Panto-fusion

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Courtesy of W!ld Rice

Monkey Goes West
W!ld Rice
29 November 2016
Drama Centre Theatre
18 November–17 December 2016

W!ld Rice is well-known for adopting the pantomime, and infusing it with local references and jokes. With Monkey Goes West, the company pushes the envelope by adapting a Chinese legend into a British theatrical convention, while bringing in Asian practices such as martial arts, Chinese opera, and shadow puppetry as narrative devices.

The plot revolves around Ah Tang (Joshua Lim), a teenager who has lost his mother and has to live with Uncle Moo (Darius Tan), Auntie Fanny (Chua En Lai), and their spoilt child, Xiao Hong (Kimberly Chan). Feeling unloved and missing his mother on her death anniversary, he runs away from home and goes to Haw Par Villa.

Falling asleep, he falls into a dream state and he finds himself assuming the role of the monk in Journey to the West as he supposedly attempts to travel from Haw Par Villa to Jurong West with the help of his disciples: Wu Kong (Sugie Phua), Pigsy (Frances Lee), and Sandy (Siti Khalijah Zainal). Knowing that any journey made within Singapore’s borders is physically unimpressive, playwright Alfian Sa’at cleverly turns it into one of self-transformation.

First staged in 2014, this ambitious show could have gone the way of most fusion cuisines; a hodge-podge of ingredients that form a veneer of the exotic, but they do not go together and one is left with an odd aftertaste. What keeps this production together is director Sebastian Tan’s methodical conceptualisation of where the elements should go.

Alfian manages to serve up a delicious fare of innuendos, satire, and jokes which send the audience rollicking in their seats, while offering an important lesson of self-control to the children. Having entertained the audience and building up their expectations for most of the show, he falters toward the end with a slightly trite resolution in order for the moral of the story to be delivered. Additionally, the headstrong nature of Sandy which is in the original tale and key to the moral of the story is not apparent.

With the script being resolutely steeped in the pantomime tradition, Elaine Chan’s music enhances that with its offering of cabaret-style tunes with the occasional Chinese motif. The songs were well thought out and it gives space for every cast member to display their vocal chops.

The Chinese opera sequences and shadow puppetry figure in the fight scenes as the disciples, mainly Wu Kong, have to battle various monsters and demons (Darius Tan, Chua Enlai, and Kimberly Chan double up as King Bull, Princess Iron Fan, and Red Boy respectively) along their journey. There, these practices are left as is with traditional Chinese percussion playing in the background. As it impossible for the actors to ramp up the intensity of the Chinese opera sequences without years of training, movement coach and fight choreographer Gordon Choy circumvents this limitation by introducing farcical sequences that play to the actors’ strong sense of comic timing.

Top it off with Wong Chee Wai’s lavish sets, sleek transitions, dazzling stage effects, and some of the most versatile actors in the industry, Monkey Goes West is a sheer treat for the senses.

With this show being a milestone for W!ld Rice’s pantomime tradition, one wonders if it is possible for the elements from different cultures to be more intertwined without it being an incomprehensible pastiche. All the more reason to look forward to Mama White Snake, W!ld Rice’s next pantomime which draws from another Chinese tale, Madam White Snake.

Other Reviews

“Making fun (of)” by Jeremiah Choy, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“An ‘A’ Production — Artistic, Amusing, and Adept!” by Beverly Yuen, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

Monkey Goes West: Embark On The Happiest & Funniest Journey To (Jurong) West” by Reuel Eugene, Reuel Writes

“[Review] Monkey Goes West by Natalie Danielle, Campus Magazine

“Review: Monkey Goes West by W!ld Rice” by Bak Chor Mee Boy

[Listing] Monkey Goes West by W!ld Rice

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Bringing the Year of the Monkey to a happy climax, W!LD RICE’s award-winning Monkey Goes West will be returning for a strictly limited season to the Drama Centre Theatre for the holidays.

Monkey Goes West completely sold out its first run in 2014, playing to an audience of more than 15,000 at the newly refurbished Victoria Theatre. It dominated the 2015 Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards with seven nominations – more than any other production that year. It eventually took home the awards for Production of the Year, Production of the Year (Reader’s Choice) and Best Costume Design (Tube Gallery).

“The W!LD RICE pantomime is a unique annual tradition for family audiences in Singapore, and Monkey Goes West set a new benchmark in terms of the artistic excellence that we always strive for,” says Ivan Heng, Artistic Director of W!LD RICE. “In the Year of the Monkey, we are thrilled that audiences, both loyal and new, will have the opportunity to experience this incredible show for themselves!”

With an affectionate, cheeky script by W!LD RICE Resident Playwright Alfian Sa’at, music by acclaimed composer Elaine Chan and direction by Broadway Beng Sebastian Tan, Monkey Goes West is the first W!LD RICE pantomime to take inspiration from the East, relocating beloved Chinese literary classic Journey To The West to modern-day Singapore.

Tan, who earned a Straits Times Life! Theatre Award nomination for Best Director for his work, will return to direct the production, which he describes as a “dream come true”.

“Monkey Goes West turned out to be this award-winning show that audiences loved and couldn’t get enough of, which is really why we are bringing it back so soon,” Tan explains with pride.

Young talents from Martial House – Singapore’s leading wushu academy – will be showing off their impressive martial arts skills on stage. The academy will also work closely with the children of W!LD RICE’s FIRST STAGE! programme, aged 5 to 12, in preparation for their stage debuts.

The cast of Monkey Goes West includes some of Singapore’s finest veteran actors and rising stars. Familiar faces like Chua Enlai (The Importance of Being Earnest, TV’s The Noose), Siti Khalijah Zainal (HOTEL, Best Of) and Darius Tan (Army Daze, Twelve Angry Men) will share the stage with Sugie Phua (Project SuperStar, Liao Zhai Rocks!) Joshua Lim (My Mother Buys Condoms, Café), Frances Lee (Beauty World, Fat Pig) and Kimberly Chan (High Class, Hotpants).

Monkey Goes West runs from 18 November–17 December 2016 at the Drama Centre Theatre. For ticketing information, please visit Sistic.

[Theatre Review] A Decent and Modest Epic

Photo: Metropolitan Productions

The LKY Musical
Metropolitan Productions
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.

Other Reviews

“Theatre review: Adrian Pang turns in a stirring performance in The LKY Musical by Corrie Tan, The Straits Times Life! 

“Theatre review: The LKY Musical by Naeem Kapadia, Today

“Review: The LKY Musical by Gwen Pew, Time Out Singapore

“A Missed Opportunity” by Andre Theng, Centre 42 Citizens’ Reviews

“Defying detractors, LKY Musical gets standing ovation” by Lisa Twang, The New Paper

“Does the LKY Musical live up to the Man?” by Crystal Nanavati, Sassy Mama

“{Review} The LKY Musical – A Night to Stand Proud and be Inspired” by Audrey, Says! Happy Mums

The LKY Musical by Mummybean, Life is in the Small Things

“Theatre Review (Singapore): ‘The LKY Musical’” by Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam, BlogCritics

The LKY Musical – Review” by Campus Magazine

“Sylvia Toh Reviews The LKY Musical by Sylvia Toh, superadrianme

The LKY Musical — A Musical We’re Proud to Call Our Own” by David Sim, Life’s Tiny Miracles

The LKY Musical: The history of Chinese men’s Singapore” by Kirsten Han, The Online Citizen

The LKY Musical: A Bold Account of Singapore’s Founding Father” by Reuel Eugene, Reuel Writes