“The story of Lee Kuan Yew in a musical? Really?” my husband asked.
It seemed like a bit of a strange proposition when The LKY Musical was first announced. The idea that a man who was so much larger than life, the times that he lived through and the course of history he charted with his every move could be conveyed in song and dance seemed incongruous to say the least.
Now, after having had the privilege of watching the musical during the gala opening on Friday, I’m here to tell you that the The LKY Musical is a compelling biopic of the man. It does NOT involve Mr Lee Kuan Yew cha-cha-cha-ing through speeches as I had feared. Think Evita rather than Beauty World and you’ll have a pretty good idea of how the musical format did added a certain energy, depth and approachability to what is essentially a rather serious subject.
I wasn’t sure what to expect going into the theatre. I am a skeptic at heart when it comes to local history and politics. But I ended up loving the musical, and here are some of the reasons why:
1. The storyline captured the essence of the times and created characters you cared about
Credit for this must go firstly to Meira Chand and Tony Petito, who crafted the story and book for the musical respectively. They handled what is in many ways a contentious man and matter sensitively, and with a surprisingly nuanced touch. The musical’s intentions are clear from the outset — it is all about Singapore’s first Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew. The story traces 24 years of his life from his school days in Raffles Institution to the establishment of an independent Singapore, touching on Mr Lee’s experiences during the Japanese Occupation, his years as a Cambridge student, his return to Singapore and the start of his career as a lawyer, the formation of the PAP, his political struggles against the communists and the ultimately doomed merger with Malaya. (Whew.)
With the scale of what has been attempted, it is impossible that the end result will please everyone. Some details have been broadbrushed for the sake of the storyline but what has been achieved is certainly admirable in its scope. I also appreciated the fact that Lim Chin Siong, a man so often dismissed in our official history books, was not consigned to being a one-dimensional “villain” of the story. Instead, we are allowed a look at this man and understand his appeal, which I felt was an important dimension to understanding his part in Singapore’s history.
This musical succeeds because it manages to move beyond simply being a history lesson to delve into the thoughts and motivations behind Mr Lee Kuan Yew the persona to showcase Lee Kuan Yew the man and the birth of a country, and it does it well.
2. The wonderful multifaceted set
The set seems simple when you first encounter it but it would soon become apparent that it has been very cleverly designed to make use of all available space to move characters through scenes without a need for too many physical set changes. This is achieved through the use of projection, with the wooden slates of the moving set being used as a backdrop, its modular design, and most amazingly, the fact that it is three-stories high. This allowed action to change and follow seamlessly on different levels in a very effective way.
That said, with the action happening at so many levels (pun intended), it does mean that sitting a little further back would give you a fuller picture and save you some neckache from craning to watch the action happening high above your head.
3. Adrian Pang’s extraordinary turn as Mr Lee Kuan Yew
All eyes were on Adrian Pang to see if he could pull off the huge task of stepping into Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s shoes. He certainly achieved it, and then some. Despite his lack of physical resemblance to the man, Adrian Pang manages to capture the passion, conviction and gravitas of Mr Lee in a way that sees the actor fade away and the character come shining through. And he can sing! Effortlessly handling all the songs and action, he was truly the star of the show.
4. Strong performances by the rest of the cast
Adrian’s star turn was wonderfully complemented by strong performances by the rest of the cast. Benjamin Chow in particular was a real standout with his brilliant performance as Mr Lee’s designated antithesis in this show, Lim Chin Siong. We had first watched Benjamin Chow on stage a couple of months back in the SRT production of The Three Billy Goats Gruff and left with a strong impression of him because we thought he was really good. Well, he did not disappoint here, giving to Lim Chin Siong that force of character, charisma and urgent passion to his cause that provided the perfect counterbalance to Adrian Pang’s Lee Kuan Yew. Till now, his last words on stage — “I am not a communist!” continue to ring in my head.
I also enjoyed the scenes where the entire all-male ensemble was on stage. They’re rousing and the energy they brought to the stage was palpable.
If there was a weak link in the show, it was Sharon Au in the role of Mrs Lee. Which is not to say that she turned in a poor performance. Her portrayal of Mrs Lee suitably captured Mrs Lee gentle and reserved nature, aided by the quiet but comfortable bond she shared with her co-star. But Sharon Au was mostly let down by her lack of singing prowess, which was made all the more obvious in a cast of really strong singers.
The music too, while good, was not particularly memorable. I am hard pressed to remember any of the songs save the three national anthems. That said, one of the highlights was certainly the opening song for Act 2, a cabaret number that the husband immediately pronounced as “classic Dick Lee”.
Overall, I loved the fact that the musical was distinctly Singaporean. While Mr Lee Kuan Yew is the premise of the story and the lynchpin of the show, The LKY Musical is also a showcase of Singapore’s tumultuous past, performed by some of the best local talent we have to offer. Go watch this show. Highly recommended for a night out!
*Thanks to Metropolitan Productions for the tickets to the show and all images used in this post.