A Musical for the Perfect Nation
music Dick Lee
lyrics Stephen Clark
book Tony Petito
directed by Steven Dexter
Propaganda involves the telling of lies, usually by governments, to influence a population toward its own conception of an endorsed attitude. Aside from the always contentious nature of that sense of an approved and absolute outcome, what constitutes the nature of lies, and truth, are always ambiguous. There is no doubt that the achievements of Singapore’s legendary founding father, Lee Kuan Yew remains a stunning accomplishment, but the stories surrounding the man, like those of every other personality of such enormous fame, are enigmatic, sometimes tenuously so, and constantly debated over. In LKY, attempts at interpreting historical events leading up to the independence of Singapore are understandably moderate. In the face of ever-conflicting memories and dissenting opinions of a shared past, the musical is careful to depict the country’s biography with sufficient heterogeneity to provide an impression of diversity in order that the work does not translate with a conceited Disney-like quality of convenient idealism. However, it does predictably, take the last word, ultimately adhering to dominant ideologies of “what must have been”.
It is clear at every stage of the plot that no surprises will have an opportunity to rear its ugly head, which results in storytelling that suffers from a lack of dramatic tension. Although the component of sentimentality is certainly not in shortage. Music by Dick Lee is expertly created not only to deliver the compelling emotional power equivalent to that of any successful mainstream musical, it uses patriotic sensibilities to manufacture irresistibly rousing tunes that takes hold of its audience with a level of conviction impossible to deny. Steven Dexter’s sophisticated direction ensures a captivatingly energetic show with thoughtful and dynamic use of space (brilliantly visualised by designers Gabriel Chan on lights and sets by Takis), and with distinct and coherent characters who help the often complex narrative flow with swift and graceful efficiency.
The mammoth task of encapsulating Lee’s extraordinarily active life over a twenty year period is less elegantly developed. Although Tony Petito’s book is not overly reductive of the period, its many renderings of significant moments in Singapore’s 50’s and 60’s are fleeting and, without the luxury of time for deeper political dissection, those crucial milestones become confusing for audiences that are unlikely to be aficionados of political history. Also disappointing is the show’s inability to humanise its subjects, with an air of mythology persisting in its representation of an impossibly earnest host of personalities.
Adrian Pang stars as Lee, in a performance full of polish but with no room for edge. Pang’s work is confident and accomplished, and in spite of an ordinary singing voice, provides a gravity to his clearly simplified role preventing the production from turning too lightweight. Without allowing a more multi-dimensional character to form, our affiliation with the icon is kept distant. Revealing no flaws, we are prevented from relating to Lee with greater closeness, and may even begin to regard his story in the production with some level of suspicion. Lee’s wife Kwa Geok Choo is the only feminine presence in a cast of more than 20. It is deeply unfortunate that women are eradicated from this important tale of nation building. Even though Kwa is shown to be highly intelligent, her role symbolises scarce more than a supportive and painfully traditional woman behind the great leader. Performed by Sharon Au, the part is virtually inconsequential to the show’s narratives due to her brief appearances, yet it is a memorable one. As with the title role, Kwa is written with a woeful blandness that the actor evidently finds challenging for creating anything substantial.
Stronger in voice, and in charisma, is Benjamin Chow as Lim Chin Siong, Lee’s adversary, who has the advantage of being attributed both light and dark qualities, thereby allowing a more nuanced approach than others. Chow manifests a commanding physicality that confirms his character’s leadership qualities, and his construction of a passionate figure of politics has a magnificence that frequently overshadows the comparatively mild “goody two shoes” version of Lee on this particular occasion. It must be noted also, that Radhi Khalid as Tunku Abdul Rahman and Dayal Gian Singh as S. Rajaratnam are important features in a too frequently monoethnic perspective of early Singapore.
Every nation’s identity requires its own heroes and myths. The arbitrariness of borders are made material through the weaving of histories and legends so that meaning and values can be manufactured for the hope of unifying peoples. Tensions always exist in the pursuit of common ideologies, because truth is always multifarious. In art, all things are possible but truth is fundamental. In LKY, the truths that we see are valid yet the lack of fresh perspectives serve only to reinforce the status quo.
photos | ©Metropolitan Productions