What exactly was it like when we mention the swinging 60s then, in our island city? Tropicana The Musical is here to bring audiences a taste of the sex, freedom and glitz of that era.
The brainchild of producer and veteran actress Tan Kheng Hua, Tropicana The Musical was inspired by the real Las Vegas-style night club that first opened its doors to the public in 1968 in Orchard Road.
Infamous for its sultry, but classy topless cabaret shows and drawing the attention of the rich and famous, Tropicana existed as a kind of smoky dream land, where hopes thrived and fantasies came to life.
Tropicana The Musical brings some of the best and brightest local talent together to create it, from director Beatrice Chia-Richmond to scriptwriter and Cultural Medallion winner Haresh Sharma of The Necessary Stage. Following the rise and fall of the Tropicana nightclub and based on characters and stories both real and fictitious, Tropicana The Musical is both nostalgic and a loving tribute to the past, capturing an era long gone but worth remembering.
Almost all of the action in Tropicana The Musical takes place in and around the nightclub itself. The strong creative team is of course, anchored by an amazing cast, who deliver a no holds barred performance depicting the club’s internal strife, interpersonal relationships (and scandalous love triangles) and how a strange but loving makeshift family forms from its inhabitants and workers, giving hope to each other even in their darkest hours.
Heading this family is Reggie (Lim Yu Beng), the owner of Tropicana. Lim Yu Beng captures the essence of Reggie’s emotions in his performance, from the sheer joy of opening night to the crushing sadness when the dream finally dies and the club shuts down. He’s supported by his crack team of colleagues, including the scene stealing Head of Ops Sandra (Audrey Luo), an aunty like character who remained unforgettable with her quick quips and no nonsense attitude, as well as hilarious minah cashier Ima (Siti Khalijah, who plays the role with aplomb), rocking the theatre with laughter.
And of course, no club is complete without its entertainment, courtesy of Muthu (Ebi Shankara), a caring show agent, surprisingly devoid of the grease and sleaze we’ve come to associate with such figures, bringing in fabulous dancers and showgirls. Two of these showgirls include the energetic Kerry (Seong Huixuan) and the showstopping but problematic Pinky (another stunning, emotional, gut wrenching performance from Sharda Harrison), an ephemeral dreamgirl constantly complaining about being mistreated and manhandled by the club’s customers.
Tropicana The Musical truly excels at reviving the 60s for the stage – explicit in its portrayals of the entertainment business and sexual liberation, even including exotic transsexual dancers, and the myriad of languages, mixing in Malay and Hokkien alongside English (all easily decipherable from the helpful surtitles), reflecting how English wasn’t always the lingua franca, when countless foreigners from places like Malaysia never even learnt English in the first place. From the costumes to the performances, everything screams period piece and it’s easy to get swept up in the glitz and glamour of it all and instantly transport yourself back in time. Yo Shao Ann’s lighting design helps immensely with this, amping up the club fervor and highlighting various characters as necessary.
Perhaps that’s why it hurts all the more when the government clamps down on the club and the new realities of the law are enforced. What was once a viceland for dreams and wild fantasies to play out is now in fact, held in the law’s vicegrip, making it difficult for the club’s staff to continue surviving in the business, alongside a spectrum of other reasons. Bickering ensues, dreams are dashed, lives are lost, and tragedy is all around.
But even in the face of difficulty, the Tropicana team sticks it out and forges a strong sense of camaraderie. Despite everything, the team musters enough heart to encourage each other and manage to get through it all together, mending past feuds and coming through everything stronger than ever before even as the dream fades away, the entire club packed away into little boxes and sent away.
Tropicana has audiences reminiscing for a past they never lived through. I know I found myself with a swelling of emotion as I watched Brian Gothong Tan’s montage of old photos and footage of the actual Tropicana nightclub play on the screen as the staged nightclub faded away, a product of the 60s that lived and died with the era.
Within the audience tonight, there were several special guests too: the original Tropicana staff were invited to attend the performance as well, the same people who continued to manage the club till it finally shut its doors. As the montage played, it sent a shiver down our spine to see them pointing out themselves in some of the photos, a testament to how well done the cast and creative team have done in making everyone feel like a part of the Tropicana experience, and a sincere tribute to the actual members of staff.
With so many emotions running loose in such an epic period piece, there was no other way of ending off entire performance with one last bang of a huge, rousing cabaret number performed by the cast, a celebration of an era of dreams, and the mourning of the loss of said dreams.
But though the actual club may have closed, the dream lives on in memory and stories, in pieces like Tropicana The Musical to tell these lesser known stories to today’s generation. No longer tied down to a physical place, the fantasies continue to survive in people’s hearts and minds, and what better way to show it than to play it over and over again in one big stage show, proving that Singapore’s culture and history still has plenty of stories worth telling. Fun fact: All the original Tropicana staff still meet once a year, and have been doing so for the past 27 years since Tropicana closed its doors in 1989. The dream truly does live on.
Performance attended on 15/4/17.