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The Emperor’s New Clothes

November 24, 2015
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EmperorsNewClothes1(Photo courtesy of W!ld Rice, by Albert Lim KS)

Event: “The Emperor’s New Clothes” presented by W!ld Rice
Venue: Drama Centre Theatre
Run: 20th Nov – 12th Dec 2015

Underneath Your Clothes

There are few theatre traditions in Singapore quite like the annual W!ld Rice pantomime, and considering this is the 12th pantomime being staged in the company’s 15-year history, it certainly has come a long way.

We’ve seen their takes on classic fables like Cinderella, Aladdin, Beauty & the Beast, Hansel and Gretel, and Jack and the Beanstalk, almost all of which feature full-length original scores, which is an incredibly impressive feat if you think about it.

Last year’s “Monkey Goes West” was memorable for being the first local theatre production being staged at the newly-reopened Victoria Theatre, plus the fact that it drew from the well-known Chinese epic tale instead of the usual Western fare, replete with gorgeous oriental elements.

This year sees W!ld Rice taking on the beloved though somewhat structurally tricky Hans Christian Andersen tale of the vain Emperor who gets duped by two swindlers into believing that they have spun him the world’s finest yarn.

I say structurally tricky because the original version describes how the two swindlers simply waltz into town and begin their grand scheme of deception, sucking up all the money given to them by the exceedingly vain Emperor, and eventually succeeding in presenting the Emperor with his final outfit for the procession, which is nothing more than thin air.

The lack of any discernible dramatic arc, and more importantly, the lack of any particular protagonist(s) in the original story would have made for a rather boring and uneventful pantomime.

While playwright Alfian Sa’at’s challenge last year was in condensing the enormous wealth of content from “Journey to the West” into a two-and-a-half hour musical, playwright Joel Tan’s challenge in “The Emperor’s New Clothes” was to adapt the story into a more conventional musical plot, and he does a great job of it.

Popular artistes Benjamin Kheng and Sezairi play Nathan and Khairul respectively, who, instead of being con men, are in fact the true protagonists of the play – industrious, noble tailors who aspire to become successful fashion designers one day.

Their hands are forced when they are ordered by Emperor Henry Lim Bay Kun (Lim Kay Siu) to design his official outfit for the kingdom’s 50th National Dress Parade, and after discovering the deep dark secrets the Emperor hides in the dungeons deep beneath the castle, they plot to teach the Emperor a lesson he would never forget.

The tale is set in a somewhat dystopian kingdom just before its 50th birthday, where a conceited Emperor rules the roost, having a penchant for throwing journalists into prison, as well as detaining dissenting citizens without trial.

He rules with an iron fist, and does not hesitate to ban anything that detracts from the citizens’ adoration of his being.

Playwright Joel Tan throws in many subtle references which leave no doubt as to what he is referring to (“Operation Plectrum”), while demonstrating fine wordplay in other instances (“treason” vs “the reason”).

The set by Eucien Chia screams Spider-Man, with a skyward perspective of tall, dark, foreboding skyscrapers, while the costumes by Tube Gallery are a riot of gaudy, neon colours.

The score by Julian Wong is a sophisticated mix of sounds, with only a band of three musicians on stage, as almost every actor in the cast eventually plays one or more instruments live on stage.

Of all the musicals I’ve ever been to, this is the one musical which I’ve seen the most actors actually play their various instruments live while performing their roles, and this is reason enough to watch the show.

Who would have known that Lim Kay Siu plays a mean violin, that Seong Hui Xuan and Audrey Luo are equally fluent on the ivories, and that Benjamin Wong is such a charmer on the flute?

In terms of the songs, “Brother From Another Mother” early in the first act is probably the most memorable of the show’s tunes, with Benjamin Kheng and Sezairi establishing their thicker-than-water ties while both on acoustic guitars, with melody and harmonies reminding me a lot of early Simon & Garfunkel.

Dramatically, I felt the showstopper was the song “Perhaps” midway through the second act, which beautifully portrayed the inarticulate tension between the Emperor’s wife (Audrey Luo) and the Emperor himself.

It was lyrically and musically moving, with great delivery by the two actors, and in my opinion this moment itself was worthy enough of the price of admission, although it is a slight pity that the relationship between the Emperor and his wife was not even more fully developed throughout the musical.

This is as strong a supporting cast as you’ll ever find in local theatre, with actors like Seong Hui Xuan, Candice De Rozario, Benjamin Chow, and Andrew Marko all doing a great job with their various roles, while Benjamin Wong truly stood out for me as one of the stars of the show, with outstanding presence and expert musicianship.

While Sezairi’s enthusiasm was infectious even amidst a cast as strong as this, it was Audrey Luo who once again steals the show as Empress Jeanette How, being given a far more substantial role as compared to her last show “Chinglish”, thus allowing her to fully showcase her tremendous comedic chops.

I struggle to think of another actress who could have done a better job than her in this role.

The show bears the familiar trademark of past pantomimes in trying to garner as much audience participation as possible, although I felt that some elements such as the chant which was taught to the audience at the start of the show, as well as the part where the audience was taught to hum to the tune of “Let It Go” came across as somewhat contrived.

In many respects, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a testament to how far the W!ld Rice pantomime has come.

It isn’t afraid to take on challenging material, adapt it to a local context, and give it the familiar W!ld Rice treatment, filling every aspect of the show with exceptional talent from the directing, writing, composing, designing and eventually to the performing.

The cliché is so well-worn by now, but it truly is a testament to the magic of theatre when so many talented individuals of various abilities are brought together by a director (Pam Oei) to come up with a show as enjoyable and as spectacular as this.

This is W!ld Rice at its fashionable best.

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