It doesn’t get any more SG50 than this. The LKY Musical has been one of the most talked-about plays of the year, and unsurprisingly so: it celebrates the life of one of our founding fathers, and it’s due to be staged right through the National Day festivities.
It’s risky to portray such an iconic man on stage, but on paper, the newly minted Metropolitan Productions’ inaugural performance sounds great. Everyone likes a success story, and this one is backed by a stellar cast and crew that include composer Dick Lee, lyricist Stephen Clark and librettist Tony Petito, with Adrian Pang starring as the titular character and Sharon Au as his wife, Kwa Geok Choo.
The show takes us from Lee Kuan Yew’s Raffles College days – when he sulked about his future wife, affectionately called ‘Choo’, beating him in the English and Economic exams – to Singapore’s independence. It unfolds against a minimalistic, effective set, crafted by London-based stage design company takis, that comprises a series of moving wooden panels onto which photos and newspaper headlines are projected.
Although the stories featured in the production are those we know well, it’s refreshing to see them told in a theatrical setting. Our main concern, however, lies in the way that they are told. Twenty-five years is a lot of ground to cover in two and a half hours, but rather than focus on a few key events in detail, the show hurtles through many. Chapters from the former prime minister’s life are only touched upon lightly. One scene cuts quickly to the next, and there’s nothing and no one to serve as an anchor. At times, it feels like we’re watching a dramatised version of Lee’s CV.
Due to the pace, the characters are not given the time to develop. They seem more like stock characters – the supportive wife, the happy-go-lucky trishaw driver, the poker-loving former prime minister of Malaysia – than three-dimensional people. It becomes difficult for us to empathise with any of them, which is a shame as they have great backstories.
That’s not to say that the cast didn’t give it their all. Pang perfectly encapsulates Lee’s passionate determination and the conflicts that he faced during his lifetime, while newcomer Benjamin Chow portrays the role of friend-turned-rival Lim Chin Siong in a measured, balanced way. Sebastian Tan steps away from his Broadway Beng persona here, though he’s clearly well suited to take on the part of Koh Teong Koo, the kind Hokkien rickshaw puller credited as having saved Lee’s life during the Japanese occupation. Au, to some extent, captures Kwa’s ‘perfect Asian wife’ image, although she is clearly not as musically trained as her fellow cast members, and doesn’t get much time onstage.
It’s a shame. The romance between Lee and Kwa – a beautiful tale in itself – would have been a brilliant way to tie the loose plot together. She was, after all, his rock in real life, and he had often said that he would not be who he was without her. Rather than positioning this as a love story and have the political storm rage in the background (or vice versa), this production ends up downplaying their relationship during those tumultuous years.
As the first show dedicated to arguably the nation’s most significant political figure, the play does have its place in the history of local theatre. It tells Lee’s – and Singapore’s – story without completely airbrushing out the not-so-flattering chapters (Operation Coldstore does get a brief mention). Yet it’s by no means revolutionary: the whole story is still fairly predictable and the colouring is done within the lines. But as far as SG50 celebrations go, this is par for the course.