Forbidden City, the lavish musical by the Singapore Repertory Theatre, is running at the Esplanade Theatre from 8 to 27 August 2017.
Telling the story of Empress Dowager Cixi, Forbidden City traces her roots from a young concubine when she was named Yehenara (Cheryl Tan) to her middle years as the Dowager (Kit Chan) and then to her advanced age (played by Sheila Francisco from the Philippines) where she meets an American painter, Kate (Steffanie Leigh), who not only promises to paint her as authentically as possible, but also develops a deep friendship with the Empress.
The music is by Dick Lee, with lyrics by Stephen Clark, and book by both Lee and Clark. The catchy melodies and meaningful lyrics are extremely enticing, and easily capture the emotions of the characters.
Director Steven Dexter cleverly uses multiple divider-type structures that come together to form cubes and walls, and with the accompaniment of swift movements, actors appear and disappear instantaneously, making the storytelling fluid and engaging. Despite cutting across geography and years of history, the narrative effectively unfolds easily, as if it were a movie, thanks to Dexter’s deft direction.
This is the fourth staging of this musical, and it’s largely recognised as a Kit Chan vehicle. However, in this production, it is Tan and Francisco who steal the thunder from Chan.
Tan plays the concubine Yehenara with the innocence and gullibility expected of the character, but it’s her singing that stands out. Whilst Tan has impressed me in Hot Pants (2014) and Beauty World (2015) with her sweet and crystal-clear voice, in Forbidden City she proves her vocals to be even more powerful as she emotes much more. From hope to happiness to heartbreak, Tan’s voice carries the lyrics with the right amount of pathos at each moment, varying seamlessly and effortlessly as needed.
It is however Francisco who brings the goosebumps in her last few scenes, where she gut-wrenchingly sings to Kate about betrayal. As a woman who’s been through so much, Francisco wears all of the Dowager’s tragedies on her sleeve, and translates them superbly with her emotionally intense voice that captures the anger, turmoil, and devastation of someone let down by another.
Other excellent performers are Leigh (despite her American accent not always being consistent) and her foil Earl Carpenter, as well as Benjamin Chow who plays the Dowager’s scheming brother-in-law. Dwayne Lau and Sebastian Tan also impress as the very funny Record Keepers.
With this many talented singers and actors on stage, it is unfortunate that Chan’s performance doesn’t pack as much of a punch in this particular staging.
Having said that, this production is visually beautiful as set designer Francis O’Connor and costume designer Yang Derong add to the quality of the show with gorgeous sets that change unexpectedly (one example is when drapes pull down to reveal a war-torn scene) and intricate period costumes that help transport the audience to that era.
So, with its great music, acting, and singing, along with an interesting narrative, Forbidden City really should be required watching for all fans of exquisite storytelling.