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The LKY Musical

July 23, 2015
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LKYMusical4(Photo Credit: The LKY Musical)

Event: The LKY Musical
Venue: Sands Theatre at Marina Bay Sands
Run: 21st Jul – 16th Aug 2015

When Harry Met Geok Choo

It’s been a truly heady SG50 year thus far, like it or not, and what better way to add on to the festivities than to welcome the long-awaited “The LKY Musical” to the Sands Theatre.

As far as musicals go, this might possibly be one of the most politically-significant ones we’ve ever had in our theatre history, and the show takes on a whole new level of poignancy in light of Lee Kuan Yew’s passing in March earlier this year.

Lest it be mistaken that this musical was conceived after the great man’s death, it has to be pointed out that plans to create this musical were set in motion as early as three years ago by Tan Choon Hiong and Alvin Tan, both directors of the fairly young theatre production company Metropolitan Productions.

Besides, it is virtually impossible to put on a musical of such a magnitude in a matter of just four months.

I attended the show on its second preview night, and while the theatre seemed almost completely full, due to some technical difficulties the show started 45 minutes late.

Which is par for the course really, considering the sheer scale of the musical, the fact that this is Metropolitan’s first time staging a show, and that technical gremlins are part and parcel of preview nights.

“The LKY Musical” focuses on a particular 26-year period of Lee Kuan Yew’s life story, from 1940, when he graduated from Raffles Institution, to 1965, when Singapore gained independence after separating from Malaysia.

It dutifully covers all the major milestones in the man’s life which by now have become common folklore, and one by one we see them being fleshed out on stage – his future wife Kwa Geok Choo (played by Sharon Au) beating him to the top student prize, his close shave with death during the Japanese occupation, his formative years in England meeting the likes of Goh Keng Swee and Toh Chin Chye, his decision to be known as “Kuan Yew” instead of “Harry”, his first meeting with Lim Chin Siong, brokering a deal with Tunku Abdul Rahman to merge with Malaysia in 1963, and finally, culminating in probably the most defining moment of his political career, when he cries on national television to inform the nation that we are now independent from Malaysia.

The non-fishing-village set essentially comprises a giant three-by-three square structure (think Hollywood Squares), where each square or squares would serve as a particular scene.

Adrian Pang does a remarkable job portraying the assertive and sometimes ruthless man to a tee, getting the finer details such as his oratorical gestures and gait all down pat.

At times when he dons the slightly oversized beige suit and struts around on stage, it almost feels like it was the man reincarnate.

And while Adrian Pang handles the vocal demands of all his songs beautifully, the same sadly cannot be said for his compatriot Sharon Au, who struggles both with pitching and rhythm issues.

One wonders why Sharon Au was cast in this musical, because while she gave a satisfactory portrayal of the strong, supportive Kwa Geok Choo, she clearly had her limitations exposed in the singing department.

Benjamin Chow gave as fine a performance of Lim Chin Siong as you could ask for – the charismatic, sometimes naive Chinese-educated trade union leader who had the innate ability to move the Chinese-speaking masses, while Edward Choy’s rendition of Goh Keng Swee was uncannily spot-on.

Sebastian Tan provides the bulk of the comic relief in a largely sombre show (à la Monsieur Thénardier from “Les Misérables”) by playing rickshaw puller Koh Teong Koo, the everyday man who saved Lee Kuan Yew’s life during the occupation.

The 19-song score by Dick Lee was massively disappointing with hardly a tune which registered in the head, and after the equally lacklustre NDP 2015 theme song “Our Singapore”, you start to wonder if the great maestro is starting to lose his golden touch, since we are talking about the same man who once composed songs like “When All The Tears Have Dried”, “Fried Rice Paradise”, “Beauty World”, “My Only Chance”, “Single in Singapore”, “爱是永恒” and countless other cantopop hits.

It has been said that biographical musicals are notoriously difficult to write, because people’s lives don’t often follow the ideal dramatic arc which befits a full-length musical, and you could see what the creative team was trying to get at by playing up to the final climax of the eventual separation from Malaysia and gaining independence.

However, I don’t know if this particular climax was strong enough to carry the show, because while the final scene sought to stir up intense feelings of pride and patriotism, the 1965 separation still shrouds itself with a certain sense of murkiness as to how it happened and who exactly initiated the breakup.

Was it truly the quintessential triumphant moment befitting the climax of a full-length musical?

Probably not.

Was separation from Malaysia something Lee Kuan Yew had fought all along to achieve, right from the very beginning?

No, it wasn’t.

And as such, it’s hard to say the book succeeded in terms of presenting the viewer with a truly compelling, fulfilling dramatic arc.

In terms of historical accuracy, “The LKY Musical” makes certain interesting though ultimately unsurprising decisions.

The creative team was careful to paint a somewhat balanced portrait of Lim Chin Siong, though eventually writing him off as an idealistic communist who had to be put away for the sake of the nation’s political progress.

Kwa Geok Choo is the emotional anchor in Lee Kuan Yew’s life, often being able to match wits with her husband and also give him valuable advice and encouragement when needed, all while being careful not to overstep her boundaries.

Lee Kuan Yew is the undisputed hero of the story, the man whose courage, fortitude and single-mindedness eventually brought Singapore its independence, who astutely formed strategic alliances to further his cause, and who had a softer and kinder side to him, but would not hesitate to pull the trigger and make the tough decisions as and when the situation called for it.

While the predictable story-telling felt like it could have come right off the pages of a secondary school history textbook, were the character portrayals entirely accurate?

Who exactly initiated the separation from Malaysia anyway?

And was Lim Chin Siong really what he was made out to be?

And while the key founding members of the PAP were all portrayed in the show, where was Devan Nair in all of this?

After all, he was the only PAP member to win a seat in the 1964 Malaysian General Election, when Singapore was a part of Malaysia, so his contributions can hardly be deemed insignificant.

Ultimately, “The LKY Musical” checks many of the proverbial boxes, but fails to stand out in any one particular aspect.

It’s the perfect metaphor for our country actually – the fact that we seem to always excel in the hard sciences and maths, and that we’re efficient and great organisers, but struggle to come up with truly creative, original or inspiring ideas.

Which brings me to the title of the musical…I mean, seriously? Was there no better option on the table than “The LKY Musical”?

When all is said and done, it would be hard to pick out one defining feature or moment in this musical, that one thing which stays with you long after you walk out of the theatre.

It’s perfectly serviceable, has a strong cast, a clever set, and it might even travel abroad…but it certainly isn’t the “Les Misérables” or “Evita” it aspires to be.

Maybe it’s because we all know the story so well that it would take a whole lot more to enthrall us.

Or maybe it could be missing that one ingredient which Singapore, too, has often been accused of not having – a soul.

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