Life and times of Singapore’s founding father traces our road to independence.
Playing a national figure onstage is never an easy task, particularly when it comes to politicians held in high regard. And when it comes to the founding father of a nation, it can be incredibly stressful to maintain the fine line between a respectful depiction and entertainment value – in a musical, no less. Yet with the new staging of The LKY Musical, Aiwei and Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) have managed to do just that, and provide a comprehensive and competent presentation of how our nation came to be under the leadership of one man.
Directed by Steven Dexter, with a book by Tony Petito and story by Meira Chand, The LKY Musical posits itself as a biopic of the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore. But more than just being his personal story, The LKY Musical instead offers a musical take on local history, and through his story, traces our struggle from the Japanese Occupation in World War II, all the way to merger and separation in 1963 and 1965, where Lee’s dream of achieving independence finally came to fruition.
Marking its second staging since its premiere in 2015, The LKY Musical stars Adrian Pang as Lee Kuan Yew. Cutting a distinguished figure, there are times one might even mistake Adrian for Lee himself from silhouette alone, testament to the costuming and direction. At the same time, Adrian makes the role distinctly his own, capturing Lee’s natural commanding aura, while also imbuing it with a raw charm that humanises the man and pierces the veil of professionalism with his personality. While he proves himself a force to be reckoned with, garnering support thanks to his conviction during speeches and rallies, there is a vulnerability to him during more private moments, particularly in the presence of his wife Kwa Geok Choo, where he freely expresses his doubts and fears. Adrian may not be the strongest vocalist of the cast, but he hits all the right notes, and carries his songs with his strong characterisation and confidence.
Adrian may be playing the star of the show, but he is well-supported by his co-stars. Opposite Adrian is Kit Chan as Kwa Geok Choo, ever the loving, supportive wife who stands strong even in her husband’s shadow, and share good chemistry onstage, never overtly romantic, but mutually respectful and loving, as is the norm for Asian couples. As the most talented vocalist of the cast, Kit’s voice is a welcome one each time she sings, and provides a much-needed woman’s perspective against the overwhelmingly male cast.
Meanwhile, Sebastian Tan is a standout as Koh Teong Koo, the rickshaw puller who saves LKY’s life time and again. Not only does he provide comic relief, but he also feels like a necessary character representing the common man amidst these politicians, and our entry point as audiences, to relate to in his starry-eyed fandom and unwavering support for Lee. Sebastian, as Koh, is always there to save the day when most needed, and in a particularly uplifting scene, even gets Lee to an important rally, amplified by multimedia that provides footage dramatising the journey. Sebastian also stands out with one of the stronger voices in the cast, and delivers all his songs with gusto and resolute joy, perfectly in line with his character.
Amidst the many battles fought by Lee, what The LKY Musical really nails is the relationship between Lee and political ally-turned-rival Lim Chin Siong. Played by Benjamin Chow, Lim is by far the most complex character within the musical, and is key to acting as Lee’s foil. Initially poised as a young ingenue who wins the hearts and minds of the Chinese-speaking community, he eventually loses favour and becomes a ticking bomb when news of his alleged communist leanings reach Lee’s ears. The uneasy alliance is hinted at and well-depicted in Lee and Lim’s song ‘Look At Him There’, and as much as Lim becomes a reckless thorn in Lee’s side, Benjamin Chow imbues the character with nuance. We both understand Lim’s bitterness towards Lee, yet still feel sympathy for him, knowing that Lee respects him yet is left with no choice but to eviscerate him for the threat he poses towards merger, resulting in the infamous Operation Cold Store.
Dick Lee’s music and Stephen Clark’s lyrics serve the musical well, and match the tone and intent of each scene, helping flesh out character traits and development, while also feeling like natural transitions from speech to song, particularly difficult for a ‘serious’ musical like this. While the massive Sands Theatre remains a challenge for sound engineers to work around, it must be said that music director Joanne Ho conducts her live band well, and amidst the acoustics, still delivers a respectable performance befitting of Singapore’s first large-scale musical since the pandemic.
Finally, director Steven Dexter deserves praise for having the vision to ensure the entire musical comes together, especially with a set (by London-based designer takis) that offers a myriad of possibilities and requires a strong hand to fully utilise. The set, comprising 9 ‘boxes’ set in a 3×3 grid, features wooden sliding doors that allow individual boxes to be obscured at any one point of time, either focused on a single box for more emotional scenes, or even across an entire row to expand the breadth of the performance space.
This is particularly well-used in the high-energy Act 2 number ‘Progress’, where almost every member of the cast is featured in a series of montages that require quick movement and changes from one box to another, with dynamic lighting and illusory tricks, showcasing the best of the ensemble and how well-rehearsed they are. Throughout the musical, multimedia is effectively used, with newspaper headlines that quickly establish the mood and atmosphere of the era, or amplifying the nostalgia through sepia-toned close-ups of cast members in character.
As a whole, considering the daunting nature of staging such a musical, The LKY Musical comes through with finesse and professionalism in its execution, and feels like a social studies textbook brought to life. While there are parts that feel rushed, they are necessary for the musical to remain within a reasonable duration, and it is impressive to have fit such a large amount of history within the time spent onstage.
Most of all, amidst Lee’s final speech, we hear the first poignant notes and lyrics of ‘Majulah Singapura’, sung by Kit Chan before being joined by the entire cast, and one cannot help but be moved, understanding the sacrifices and toll not just Lee, but all who contributed to our independence have paid. From ‘God Save The King’, to ‘Kimigayo’, to ‘Negaraku’, to finally hearing our very own national anthem for the first time in the show, there is an overwhelming sense of triumph against the odds, and unimaginable pride at realising all it took to finally call Singapore our own. The LKY Musical ends up being more than the story of a single man – it is the story of a nation, rising from the ruins of war and the struggle of decolonisation, to emerge as one united people, one Singapore.
Photo Credit: Aiwei and Singapore Repertory Theatre
The LKY Musical plays from 7th September to 2nd October 2022 at the Sands Theatre. Tickets available here