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Melodies and Melodrama: Our “Singapura: The Musical” Review

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Last Saturday I attended the gala premiere of Singapura: The Musical, the first of three big-ticket productions slated to celebrate Singapore’s golden jubilee this year. The show is the premiere production for the newly reopened, gorgeously renovated Capitol Theatre (which originally opened in 1929 but had sat in disrepair since 1998). I think the hope was to create a new Singapore classic within the framework of an old one, but the theatre itself will probably be the highlight of this review.

singapura the musical crowd scene

As a non-Singaporean, my qualifications are limited in evaluating a piece that’s meant to dramatise the “untold stories” of everyday Singaporeans during the turbulent pre-independence years of 1955-1965. Of course, it’s also a head-scratcher as to why the play was written by – and mainly stars – non-Singaporeans (most of the cast and crew is Filipino). You know it’s a problem when even I recognise that the cast’s Singlish feels stilted and unnatural, their “lahs” awkwardly placed.

singapura the musical man in white

There’s also the matter of the man who would star in any Singapore Story, Lee Kuan Yew. Apparently the show was originally envisioned as a musical tribute to his life and words, but they had to scrap that when they couldn’t obtain rights and permissions. So instead, a character known only as “The Man in White” pops up here and there throughout the show – striding proudly through his modern metropolis during the big opening number (“Another Day in Singapore”) or urging students (including one of the protagonists, a feisty young law student named Lee May) that unity with Malaysia is the way toward independence. I found it distracting that he was never named though we all knew who he was meant to be; if this show aims to tell “the untold stories of Singapore” (as the program proclaimed), that should be enough.

singapura the musical couple

Similarly distracting was the melodramatic love story between Lee May and an English military officer; it wasn’t introduced until late in the first act (surprising since the couple adorns most of the show’s promotional materials) but again felt superfluous compared to the real, compelling drama that enveloped Singapore; the Hock Lee Bus riots of 1955 or the race riots of 1964. Incidentally, the show does provide a fascinating history lesson, though some critics have charged the song lyrics come off like a social studies textbook.

Another bright spot was the actress playing Lee May, Marian Santiago, who has a beautiful singing voice. I also enjoyed the gorgeous period costumes (I’d love each and every one of those 50s-era dresses), and thought the multimedia graphics used to provide the changing backdrops were inventive and engaging.

Singapura The Musical

Musical theatre lovers, students of Singapore history and anyone eager to experience Capitol Theatre in its inaugural performance will all get something out of Singapura: The Musical. It may be required viewing for SG50 enthusiasts, for while it might be remembered as more of a miss than a hit, I think it will be remembered all the same.

All the details!
When: Now-7 June, 2.30pm & 7.30pm
Where: Capitol Theatre, 17 Stamford Road, Singapore 178907
How much: $65-$175. Buy your tickets by clicking here!

All images courtesy of "Singapura: The Musical"

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