Marking its 15th anniversary since its debut in 2002, the Esplanade and Singapore Repertory Theatre have brought back one of Singapore’s best and most well-loved musicals of all time to the stage – Forbidden City.
Still as spectacular as when it first premiered, the fiercely Asian Forbidden City brings to life a semi-fictitious history of Empress Dowager Cixi “The Dragon Lady” as American painter Kate Carl is given the rare opportunity to bypass the gates of the walled Forbidden City and paint the biggest job of her life: the portrait of an empress.
Dick Lee’s eloquent score and lyrics remain one of the absolute best ones to grace the Singapore stage, a classic that’s withstood the test of time while Steven Dexter’s direction was well-paced and brought out the best in just about every single cast member. In this new staging, Kit Chan’s iconic role as Yehenara (as the Empress used to be known) has been given a new dimension by splitting the role across not two but three actresses, with Sheila Francisco reprising her role as the older Cixi, and the young and very talented Cheryl Tan taking on Yehenara’s years as the Emperor’s concubine in the entirety of the first act.
As the newcomer to the trio of Empresses, Cheryl Tan had plenty to live up to in her portrayal of the young Yehenara. But the gifted young actress was more than worthy of playing the role, effortlessly commanding the audience’s attention each time she appeared and stunning the theatre with her clear, crisp enunciation and strong emotions. Tan is undoubtedly one of the best young musical theatre actresses working in theatre today, and perfectly portrayed the young Yehenara’s girlish, naive love for the Emperor while also appropriately displaying a newfound strength as she rises to power.
Reprising her role, Sheila Francisco’s turn as the formidable older Cixi brings with it an air of wisdom and the girded heart of a woman who’s been betrayed one too many times, her voice aching with regret and suspicion as she sings “My Only Chance”. Finally, Kit Chan rounded out the royal triumvirate as the most anticipated actress of the night, and she did not disappoint. Making her imperious entrance as the Emperor’s Regent at the beginning of act 2, Chan carries herself with an air of grace and class, and absolutely nails her role covering the more difficult, emotionally charged portion of Yehenara’s life. Bringing the entire theatre to thunderous applause in her showstopping solo “Why Dream of Love?”, it was undeniable that Chan was once again the perfect choice to play the royal role.
While the three Yehenara actresses were no doubt the stars of the show, actress Steffanie Leigh, playing artist Kate Carl, was one of the other standouts of the night. With a voice that definitely held Broadway quality potential, Leigh’s voice soars as she sings both speedier ditties such as ‘Falling In Love” or the magnificent “Stories” ending off the entire show. Leigh also makes Carl extremely likeable, and easily connects with her costars onstage at any given moment, possessing strong chemistry with both Earl Carpenter and Sheila Francisco. We imagine her star will continue to be on the rise if she keeps up the good work she’s doing.
Other impressive cast members of the night included both of Yehenara’s proteges: Tan Shou Chen as her spoilt, egotistical son Tung Chih, and Dwayne Tan as her scholarly nephew Kang Hsu, both of whom embodied their roles with aplomb. Even child actor Matthew Loo, playing 15 year old Kang Hsu, was impressive for the brief scene he appears onstage, performing with confidence and holding his own even beside Kit Chan. Comic relief duo Dwayne Lau and Sebastian Tan were also a breath of fresh air amidst the more serious narrative, providing welcome laughter each time they appeared onstage with their complementary ‘yin and yang’ act, where the ‘serious’ Dwayne Lau provided a good contrast against Sebastian Tan’s flightier record keeper.
Without a doubt, the massive ensemble (Tanya Ang, Edward Choy, Gordon Choy, Juni Goh, Peps Goh, Benjamin Harris, Benedict Hew, Xavier Kang, Abby Lai, Ann Lek, Leslie Leow, Alyssa Lie, Bright Ong, Dwayne Tan, Tan Rui Shan, Tan Shou Chen, Millicent Wong and Natalie Yeap) has also worked immensely hard, with probably the most costume changes of all and easily complementing the sheer scale of the performance with their zealous commitment to their roles. Transforming from concubines to prostitutes, and eunuchs to soldiers, the ensemble confidently leaps and dances their way to giving Forbidden City the integral sense of grandeur it rightfully deserves, an army in their own right protecting their ‘city’.
Speaking of grandeur, Forbidden City’s production value is also top notch, and each scene is a visual feast for the eyes. Francis O’Connor’s genius multifunctional set design and Rick Fisher’s lighting design allows for the simple, towering four panel wall to easily switch from palace interior to exterior, while the design also fully utilizes the Esplanade stage’s depth to give it a greater sense of scale. Particularly impressive was the introduction to the Summer Palace, as lanterns descended from the ceiling and confetti rained down, while the male ensemble somersaulted around the stage, giving it a real parade feel, celebratory and huge. Yang Derong’s dramatic costume designs were top notch, and we loved both the historical accuracy of their design and the careful attention to unique details in each concubine’s dress, from the impeccable colour choice to the elaborate headdresses.
It’s no wonder then that even in its fourth staging, Forbidden City undoubtedly remains one of Singapore’s absolute best musicals, a timeless classic that brings an epic story of love, trust and betrayal to life. With just the right balance of laughs, tears and of course, incredible production value, Forbidden City throws open its doors to show that it’s not just the portrait of an Empress; it’s the picture that paints a landscape of the boundless talent and potential our own theatre scene holds.
Photo Credit: Singapore Repertory Theatre
Forbidden City plays at the Esplanade Theatre from 8th to 27th August at the Esplanade Theatre. Tickets available from SISTIC