Heartfelt and sincere new work shows the potential of Singaporean musicals.
You’ve seen them at MRT exits, you’ve had them approach you while having a meal at the local coffee shop. With the tissue aunty being so ubiquitous in Singapore, she’s something of a national icon, and high time she became the centre of focus in a show.
Written, composed, and directed by the late Mario Chan, new musical Tissue Aunty the Musical made its debut as part of the final weekend of Sing’theatre’s inaugural Musical Theatre Fringe Festival. Performed in Sing’theatre’s humble but cosy black box space on Tan Quee Lan Street, Tissue Aunty the Musical follows the charming tale of a young boy Zac (Glen Lee) as he attempts to sell tissues to raise enough money for his sick mother (Sharon Mah).
His misadventures however, lead him to an encounter with ‘The Flowers’ – tissue aunties Rose (Fiona Chua), Lily (Miriam Cheong) and Chrys (Miranda Pohlin), who wind up entangling him in a clandestine plot far greater than any of us could ever imagine. Ever wonder if tissue aunties were actually part of a far bigger syndicate? Tissue Aunty the Musical takes that to extremes, resulting in a bizarre but oddly heartwarming, proudly Singaporean tale of family, life and moving on.
Tissue Aunty the Musical makes full use of its status as a fringe-type musical and the small, intimate space it is performed in. Right from the beginning, audience members are introduced to the entire show with Lily performing a typical song tissue aunties might sing (“Three One Dollar”), while literally going around collecting money from audience members in exchange for packets of tissue. It’s an innovative form of audience interaction and an energetic start that segues into a lesson on how to sell tissue paper, and focuses on the idea of making use of others’ empathy.
Throughout the play, similar quintessential Singaporean ideas are celebrated and turned into musical numbers – Zac is introduced to The Flowers in the heartlands, outside Bedok Mall (“Sisters of Bedok”), while there are also several tongue-in-cheek references to local cuisine and even the ‘East Coast Plan’.
Where Tissue Aunty the Musical works best is how it pushes at the most outrageous possibilities behind the ’tissue aunty syndicate’, in that it imagines an actual shady organisation using these women as a front for peddling various illegal substances. While there are several layers of disbelief to suspend, when one gives in to the sheer fun of the plot, one will find themselves buying in to devices such as how Zac’s mother is actually the head of a secret group trying to take down the criminal organisation, along with her secretary (played by a talented Danica Elisha Chan). Sharon Mah differentiates between the two roles well, going from pitiful sick woman (“A Mother’s World”) to commandeering ‘Madame General’ later on.
Characters are also quickly fleshed out and endearing, such as how each of The Flowers are given a distinct personality – Rose is the clear leader of the group, Lily as the pushy, innovative one, and Chrys as the lackadaisical, ‘anything goes’ type. This familiar dynamic allows audiences to easily recognise and relate to such character tropes, right down to how they even have to flip a coin (“Heads or Tails”) when faced with a difficult decision. Glen Lee, as Zac, manages to capture his character’s innocence and youth, and has good chemistry with his cast mates.
Most of all, credit goes to Mario Chan for having composed relatable, catchy songs that will strike a chord with audiences, from the trials and tribulations of friendships, to emotionally-stirring songs about parent-child relationships. There was a good balance and transitions between song and dialogue, with good forward momentum that kept audiences interested in what would come next. The performers were well cast to their roles and songs, capable of delivering each number while also showing off what they can do. Without the use of mics, the cast projected their voices and we felt their warmth emanate.
Even as a work-in-progress, Tissue Aunty the Musical shows a wealth of potential from the script, the songs and the cast. The relationships and friendships in this show felt genuine, and by the end of the performance, we were left moved by this sincere presentation. As the brains behind this piece, Mario laid down strong foundations for a promising local musical, allowing the cast and creatives involved an opportunity to highlight their abilities, and essentially, put up a show they clearly enjoyed being a part of, and display immense pride in performing. Such fringe events are intended to find diamonds in the rough, and with Tissue Aunty the Musical, Mario Chan has unearthed the hidden talent present in the Singapore musical scene, and produced an uplifting production that shows there is much potential in our local artists. As his final work, as far as legacies go, it’s a great one to leave behind.
Photo Credit: Poh Yu Khing
Tissue Aunty The Musical played from 5th to 7th August 2022 at Sing’theatre Main Stage 21 Tan Quee Lan St, #02-03, Heritage Place, Singapore 188108. More information available here
Musical Theatre Fringe Festival 2022 ran from 22nd July to 7th August 2022 across various venues. Tickets and more information available on their website.