Theatre reviewers Matt Lyon and Naeem Kapadia are joined by ArtsEquator editor Nabilah Said in this newly rebooted theatre podcast discussing recent productions Urinetown: The Musical by Pangdemonium, and Lim Boon Keng – The Musical by Musical Theatre Ltd. This local edition of Urinetown, directed by Tracie Pang, sets the satirical piece against the backdrop of a Singapore-Malaysia water crisis, whilst Lim Boon Keng – The Musical references the life of Singapore’s pioneer, written by his own great granddaughter, playwright Stella Kon.
Duration: 28 min
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Matt Lyon (ML): Hello everybody welcome back and indeed welcome us back, I hope, to the ArtsEquator theatre podcast. It’s been a while but I have with me of course, Naeem Kapadia.
Naeem Kapadia (NK): Hello.
ML: And we brought in the big guns, we’ve got Nabilah Said, editor of ArtsEquator.
Nabilah Said (NS): Hey.
ML: And today we will be discussing Urinetown: The Musical by Pangdemonium and Lim Boon Keng – The Musical. It’s a thing with musicals, they have to say either “The Musical” or have an exclamation mark at the end. This time we have the former. Those are what we are going to be discussing today. She is the guest, she shall begin, well, she’s not the guest because she’ll be joining us permanently from now on, Nabilah, start us off with Urinetown.
NS: Hi. Okay, so we have Urinetown by Pangdemonium, a musical that I think we were all looking forward to because it comes from New York. I was gonna say straight from New York, but it’s actually been…
ML: Somewhat delayed.
NS: Almost 20 years, I think since it premiered in New York. But yeah, so this is a kind of a Singapore version of Urinetown. Plot-wise, we have an unnamed town I believe. And there’s a water shortage. And so there’s a law that says that you can’t have private toilets basically, in your home and you have to pay for it in public, which isn’t really something we’re not not familiar with in Singapore. But in the play, you know, it’s a really big thing.
ML: Yeah, you’ve actually made that sound a lot more coherent than it was watching the play, where everything immediately falls apart, the second you even begin to think about it. There’s not really much point talking about this except to say that the entire metaphor just doesn’t work at all. And they try and make that part of the fun. It wasn’t part of the fun for me. Naeem, your thoughts?
NK: No, I think that’s the thing because everyone who watches Urinetown knows that it’s supposed to be this satire on communism, on the capitalist lifestyle.
ML: Well, we could keep listing that though couldn’t we, about what it’s supposed to be a satire of.
NK: Exactly, but the conceit of the whole toilets for me, it’s just, it’s nothing more than just a gag.
ML: Yeah, it’s a very, very cheap gag which gets repeated absolutely ad nauseam. And you said communism versus capitalism. Yeah, that’s one of your options. And then you’ve got possibly it’s about environmentalism. Possibly it’s about uprisings and putting down those uprisings. Possibly, it’s about the danger of hope. They end off by saying it’s about population control, because the last line of the play is “Hail Malthus”. If you’re gonna have a metaphor, like aim it at something? Satire is not satire without a target, right?
NK: Yeah. So it just felt like a sort of musical that seems to spread in old different directions without any kind of concentrated focus. And I think added to all of this was the fact that it sets out to satire the genre of musicals itself. So it sort of becomes a bit of a self-referential gag, if you like, and peppered throughout the play, the two characters played by one of the officers, the law enforcement officer who was played by Adrian Pang–
ML: Officer Lockstock, I believe.
NK: Lockstock and a street urchin called Little Sally and they basically go around making fun of the musical form. They talk about things like exposition, they talk about things like, you know, musicals which have weird names, and they talk about, you know, overwrought sequences and all of these things that, you know, people normally make fun of musicals for. So, you know, I’m just not quite sure what the intention was here. Like, are you wanting to sort of take this seriously. You want to sort of create a target, try to address these big issues but at the same time you laugh at yourself. I, just for me, you know, I just couldn’t see the…
ML: I mean, there’s lots of musicals that do that, but it’s something you have to earn. You have to have an amazing entertaining script. You have to have really singable songs, you gotta have these fantastic production numbers. I’m thinking of shows like Little Shop of Horrors, which takes the piss out of musicals. I’m thinking of the Book of Mormon, or Avenue Q does amazingly, there’s one which hasn’t come here yet, and I really wish Pangdemonium had done it instead called The Drowsy Chaperone, which does literally take the piss out of musicals of this same time period. Nope, we get this instead it’s dull, it doesn’t earn it, the songs are awful.
NS: I didn’t quite mind the metatheatrical bits of it and even like the “wink-wink” about Singapore and Malaysia and our kind of like water crisis or whatever. But I think the fact that like you guys were saying that there wasn’t really a particular target or it was more like there was too many targets. That then that metatheatricality like doesn’t have anything to contrast it against so it was very kind of like random.
ML: Yeah absolutely.
NS: And when it did happen, I didn’t mind it, but it just didn’t have the other side of it to balance it, basically the story.
ML: Yeah okay, I don’t mind it except when they aim it at something which is happening in the world now which is really, really serious. There’s a riot in the show and the lower class characters, who need to pee for free, are defending against the police with umbrellas, and that’s Hong Kong. And do you really want your audience going “Hahaha, Hong Kong, hahaha pee, umbrellas haha”. What? I thought that was in awful taste, really, really bad.
NS: I think like in light of Greta Thunberg and the kind of discussions we’re having about the climate, which has become really kind of like a mature conversation and we are also trying to figure out how to talk about these things which are affecting the world. This kind of musical, perhaps at this time, somehow felt a bit out of, I don’t know, like out of sorts, or it just didn’t sit well, I think, with the kind of times that we’re living in now.
NK: Yeah. And I mean, I think the problem is – and you know Pangdemonium, they do… to their credit, they do try to tackle the sort of, quote unquote, big issues. They’ve done plays about depression and dementia and, you know, mental illness and all of those things. But I think here, you’re really stretching yourself a little bit thin when you know you have this ludicrous conceit about, you know, world where people can’t own their own toilets. And suddenly you’re billing it as a play that tackles climate change, and suddenly making references to like a cross-border water crisis. And this is all happening, despite the fact that for some weird reason, the entire aesthetic of the piece seems to be set in the Depression era.
ML: In specifically New York.
NK: Yeah, you’ve got a set that clearly has a bit of an Art Deco neo-noir sort of aesthetic about it, everyone’s kind of in that sort of costume. And yet, the very contemporary references that are being made, you know, to Hong Kong, which was obviously in quite poor taste, but also just about Singapore and Malaysia and I just – the whole locale for me was just a huge question mark. And I just couldn’t put my finger on whether this was meant to be faithful to the play, or was it an updated localised take on the play, or just a hodgepodge of both?
ML: It seemed opportunistic, didn’t it?
ML: “We don’t know what it is. So what can it be?” And then start throwing darts at a board and see what you end up with?
ML: Yeah, a bit of a shame. But – well done…?
NS: Yeah, the production quality was amazing. I think me and Naeem were raving about the set. I really liked how they, how they use the set and the aesthetic quality. I appreciated it a lot. I wasn’t really that bothered about the Art Deco, like New York versus Singapore contemporary that much? And I think in terms of like the singing, the singing was amazing. I thought the production – the cast was amazing. I don’t think we have anything bad to really say about the cast. I think Adrian Pang did a really good job as well in the lead role.
NK: Yeah, no, no. And if there was one thing I will wholeheartedly say is that Urinetown had great production quality. So they had a fantastic set. They’re working with Eucien Chia, who is an architect and who was a frequent collaborator as well.
ML: And it’s a tricky ask for the set as well because you’ve got to do a lower class kind of slum area and the sewers, okay, it’s easy to make the same area look like both of those things. But on the other hand, it’s got to be kind of a swanky, captains of industry penthouse, and that was accomplished so well. With such quick changes. They roll a truck on, they roll a truck off, they change some doors around, they change the lighting. I was glad I brought students to it just for that, because they really struggle with set changes when they’re writing their assignments, and like, that’s how you do it. Perfect.
NK: And that was a really – and it’s interesting because I watched Urinetown with a friend who rarely goes to the theatre and goes to kind of the occasional show that comes in, you know, Marina Bay Sands, Mamma Mia, that sort of thing. And he said, this has an amazing set. Like, I would not have been surprised if you told me this was a foreign import, which just goes to show the level of the production quality.
ML: It was rather a higher standard than most foreign imports do.
NK: Yeah, and I mean, quite apart from the set, I think as always, Tracie (Pang) works with a fantastic team. I really liked the choreography which was done by Andy Chai. And there was just this wonderful sense of both classical and you know, whimsical, elements to the various numbers that somehow keeps you captivated and the cast was truly, truly fantastic. They were the two romantic leads, Benjamin Chow and Mina Kaye have done a couple of shows now. They’re really, really strong performers in their own right. And each of them have the chance to really, you know, wow the audience with, you know, a specific song. So for me, I really, really enjoy just seeing that wealth of talent on stage and not just in the lead roles, but even in the supporting roles. There’s some really nice little turns that are–
NS: Yeah, I think we really like Little Sally.
ML: She nailed it.
NS: She really nailed it. In fact, I thought she was a little girl. I was wondering how old she was. I think she is a young actress. But she was really convincing in her kind of, like, innocent yet knowing too, like more than then she should know.
ML: That’s Mae Elliessa playing Little Sally. She was one of two people who absolutely nailed the style for me. And the style is so broad. It’s really like Mind Your Language. It’s decades out of its time even for when it was written. But she made it entertaining because it was so arched, so emphatic, so stylised. Yeah, it was awful but she made it watchable. And for me Mina Kaye made it watchable to an extent as well just the kind of bright sunshine-faced commitment she did to it – doesn’t hurt that she can really sing. Not everybody else was quite at that standard for me but it was a high standard overall. And it’s a big ask for me to make something that deliberately lowbrow watchable.
NS: I think maybe the reason why Mae Elliessa and Adrian Pang to me felt like really kind of, like they nailed the style was maybe because they were kind of like narrators as well. So they’re kind of set outside the story and maybe it helped to do that when it comes to a play or musical like this where we said, like it was kind of like everywhere and trying to do a lot of things and at the same time.
ML: Yeah it makes the irony a bit easier to see, contextualise it. You might be right there. The cast had to save it though, because… the music, the songs? Yeah I see shaking heads.
NK: I would struggle to remember anything apart from maybe Run Freedom Run and even then, very fleetingly. So the songs were just not memorable. Um, you know, Tracie normally does a really great job with direction in terms of her pace, her sensitivity. For me, I think because of the material she had, she could have pushed it almost towards a pantomime level, which was something that… yeah…it’s just, it just felt a little grating at times to you know, see every line being treated like it was a sort of cheap gag and I’m sure that might be part of the script itself. But you know, you have like this cardboard-thin romance that plays out in five minutes. You have like, a main character who gets killed and it’s a sort of a, almost a stage gag of sorts.
ML: It’s exactly a stage gag of sorts.
ML: This production wants to have its cake and eat it. It wants you to feel and then it wants you to dismiss that. And you know, that’s a Brechtian thing and I’ve seen studies of how this is supposed to be a Brechtian musical, but Brecht aims at something. There’s a target. There’s no target for this.
NK: Yeah. I think it’s just important also to just have that you know, sense of emotional connection to the story. For this one, you know, you are taken on a bit of a journey, you have, you know, one of the lead characters killed, the romantic girl becomes a bit of a revolutionary but then you’re told literally in the last few minutes that everything failed and ultimately it all–
NS: The ruthless dictator was kind of like doing something good for the country.
NK: It was all for nothing and you just wonder almost what’s the point of this entire thing – do I even care.
ML: For me, they did it incredibly well, but it must also be possible to… let’s say you’re in a lift and someone farts. It must be possible to do that really well, like with really good buttock tension, and then a melodic kind of pop coming out and a rich, earthy smell. And it’s like, well done, you really farted in a lift incredibly impressively, but on the other hand, maybe don’t…? And that’s just what I feel about this production. And it’s Pangdemonium as a whole, whatever they do, they’re going to do well. And usually they choose plays, which are good to excellent. Their productions of Spring Awakening, Next To Normal, musicals that are really excellent and done – I saw both of those on Broadway – I can honestly say that did it better than the Broadway versions. Presumably they did this better than the Broadway version. It’s not worth doing. And with that somewhat final statement let us move on to Lim Boon Keng – The Musical. Now this production, the lead character had an awful lot of mansplaining so I’m going shut up. Nabilah?
NS: So Lim Boon Keng – The Musical is written by Stella Kon of Emily of Emerald Hill fame, of course, which we just watched in August, I believe. So she’s written this musical about her, I think her great grandfather, Lim Boon Keng, who is kind of like a pioneer of Singapore, maybe we don’t know much about him. And so that’s why I think this musical exists, for her to kind of tell us about her ancestor. And I think she was actually trying to say, talk about how he was urging like the Peranakans to modernise and, you know, learn Chinese, for example.
ML: There was definitely a sense in which he seemed to have some historical importance, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was
NS: I mean he started the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School.
ML: That was definitely the thing that you could tick off right, that was the countable thing. And then there were all these vague “went over here, said this, did this business-y thing” thing.
NK: So that was the thing. So obviously, it’s centred on this man, this pioneer of Singapore who did great things, who had ties with the Chinese and who, you know was a champion of his Peranakan community but also of education. And then also it explores kind of his own personal life and his relationships and things like that. So it starts off with you know, a bit of an anchor, you have the sense of a character who’s got a bit of gut and gumption to him. He comes in and he talks about like, oh you know, women should not bind their feet, Chinese Peranakan women should go to school and things like that, but then the character sort of flattens off.
ML: Oh you thought it had some texture to begin with?
NK: There was like a sense of someone who knew what he wanted and I thought, okay, maybe they could go somewhere with this, but they did not. And it just sort of went downhill from there. I watched the show, which spans something like 50 years. We started in 1895 when he was voted into the Legislative Council, and it goes all the way up to the 1940s and Sebastian Tan who plays the character looks and sounds exactly the same. I don’t know whether that was an intention.
ML: He walked slightly slower at the end… maybe 20%?
NK: Maybe there was a very token attempt to look like an old man. I don’t know. But I just did not feel that the character changed at all. And, you know, we made this comment, Nabilah and I saw the show together and there’s this… so there’s another character played by George Chan, who sort of like the best friend of Sebastian Tan.
NS: Yah, Ong Siang, I think.
NK: Song Ong Siang and there’s this funny line where he goes “Oh, old chap, we’re almost at the end of our lives” or something and you see two men looking like, you know, in the 30s or something.
ML: Looking gym-fresh.
NK: And you’re just like, okay, maybe you could have conveyed the age just a little bit to give us a sense of time passing. Because if not for like the big multimedia flashes that go 1921, 1948, I would have absolutely no sense of the time. Yeah, it just felt flat. And on that note about multimedia….
ML: You’re giving me the look, that there’s this one big bugbear I have and we talked about it before the show and – the lighting and the multimedia. Brian Gothong Tan, you are a talented individual, what the hell are you playing at? You are credited here for multimedia design. And the set was a two-level set. And it’s the standard kind of back wall with diagonal sides that creates the playing area. And then that raises to a second level which has kind of bleacher seating. And okay, so already that’s a way of creating two stages that are both slightly too small, but nevermind. The problem was that instead of building texture into the walls of the set, all of that was done by projection. Rear projection, not so much a problem. Front projection, if an actor stands in front of that, the actor has scenery on them. I’ve seen this before several times, guys don’t do it. It’s incredibly stupid. Nobody walks around with a wall on their face. What are you thinking? And then the lighting designer has to overcompensate for that by washing the faces of the people who are supposed to be in focus far too bright, luridly bright, so that their features largely wash out but on the other hand, you can’t do it too much, and they’ve still got wall on their face! Can we put an absolute ban on this, it is idiocy. Okay, rant over.
NS: Yeah, I wonder if it was like a… I kept thinking that “oh do they not have enough budget?”. Because you know, Naeem was saying that all the names involved in the production design are really big names.
NK: Yeah, we have you know, the set by Wong Chee Wai. You have you know, Brian Gothong Tan doing the multimedia. You have Shah Tahir doing the sound. So you know–
NS: Moe Kassim for costume.
NK: I mean, these are all very established names in the industry. But for some reason, when I watch this show without really glancing at the programme, it just felt really–
NS: Amateur hour.
NK: Yeah, an amateur student production, I’m just going to say it, that’s what it felt like.
ML: With a surprisingly large budget, but certainly not professional level.
NK: And yeah, that’s why I just wondered why a little bit more attempt had not been taken just to shape and craft this show, especially because Stella Kon has been working on this for many, many years. Yeah, she approached Jeremiah (Choy), I think, a year and a half ago, and it was a much longer script, originally over three hours, and it was condensed into 90 minutes, but it’s just weird, even though it was condensed, it still felt like there was a lot of waffle in it. And I think the problem is that, I felt it was a bit like reading a Social Studies report, which was just somehow set to song. There was really written nothing interesting. I just felt like they were just singing out like a verbatim report at times.
ML: Well, how much of the dialogue would you say was exposition? Would 80% be unfair?
NS: I was going to say like 90%, I think.
ML: So let’s call it 85. Right? Of the remaining percentage of dialogue, I’m gonna put say about 10 of it for literally the words “Lim Boon Keng”.
NK: 5% has to be “sambal balacan”.
ML: 5% may be something like generalised Peranakan terms. So the play kinda goes, “I am Lim Boon Keng, and I have a great important thing to say, women should have power!”, then his wife says “Oh Lim Boon Keng, you’re–”, “No, shut up, I’m a man and I will tell you that women should have power and I will set up a school”, and then everybody says “Lim Boon Keng”. And then they break into song and “the end”. Now you don’t have to see it.
NS: And I think they end up beginning to kind of try to make it interesting by telling us that he was known as a traitor or there was some kind of like belief that he was a traitor to the British government, or the Chinese government, I got a bit confused. But then when it actually comes into the plot where we actually look at what he did it meet him so-called a traitor, they don’t actually go into why he did what he did he just like, helped some people during the war, but doesn’t really like – we kind of spent a lot of the play looking at him like frowning on a bench, without actually knowing, like, what kind of went through his mind and all and… I don’t know.
NK: Yah exactly. So I mean, like, you know, you have this very powerful opening scene where it’s set in the War Crimes Tribunal post-World War Two, and he’s being denounced as a traitor and there’s all this big, you know, resounding kind of cries from the ensemble and all that. And you somehow think that they’re going to explore what led up to that moment. The point is that in this 90 minutes, which plays without an intermission, there is no climax whatsoever. There’s just a series of small insignificant arcs and on top of that, they basically play around with the time. So you have the first wife, who then mysteriously dies. And then a second one comes into the picture. And then the first wife comes back and he introduces everyone to the first wife. And then the two women do a little duet with each other, which–
ML: Which you know, okay, sure. But, I mean, the problem was that the first one died with absolutely no fanfare, with nobody caring about her without her having said anything. And then that is, I guess, retrospectively supposed to be the great tragedy of his life. There is a way to make that work and to present it, but there was no understanding of how musical theatre works in any respect. In this play, like at least for me, Urinetown, okay, I guess it’s a plot. I guess it happens in a plot-like order. Lim Boon Keng, none of that. History report, random–
NK: There’s nothing wrong and having, you know, a sense of like this old man and his memories are flooding back and, you know, there is this sense of non-linear–
ML: Could have been handled right.
NK: It could have been handled… but no, I think apart from that one weird bit in the middle, everything else is generally quite sequential. So that’s why I was wondering why that bit about the two women was kind of played that way, it was just very bizarre.
NS: Although to be honest, that song was like the best thing about the musical actually.
ML: The one where the two wives sang. They had a really nice counterpoint section where the two women sang against each other. I still don’t really think the melodies were there. And overall, the songs were not memorable. But… eh.
NS: I feel like I want to give credit to Celine Rosa Tan, who played the second wife, I felt that the moment like she started singing, she kind of brought an emotional kind of, some emotional depth to the entire musical.
NK: That was the only bit that had pathos.
NS: Which had been missing the whole time. Yeah, so I thought that at least she she did something quite good with the material that she had. But I think unfortunately for this musical and like kind of historical musicals in general, is I always compare it to Hamilton. And it kind of like you know – but the thing about having Hamilton is that it was based on like this really I don’t know, like 400-page book right, where the the author had put a lot of research into this individual, but I kind of got a sense that like Stella Kon, you know, despite being like a relative of Lim Boon Keng didn’t maybe have a lot of insight into the actual man?
ML: It really felt like they’d left the drama offstage. So much of it was literally people spouting – I say “people”, largely Lim Boon Keng played by Sebastian Tan – spouting political ideals in oddly formal language that nobody either speaks or writes. And yet, then you hear things like he went to China to speak with the political leaders there about revolution. He helps Sun Yat Sen escape, and it’s like, that’s some drama. Can I see that? No, instead I’ll just watch him speak about how he loves the Peranakan community, but they’re so backward and they need to stop doing everything that they do.
NK: Yeah, I think it’s really saying something about a show when you just do not really care about the main character at all. You know, from start to finish, he just seems to be this mildly troubled sort of person, who seems to strut around with his own ideas, not really caring about what others others think. You have people denouncing him in the War Crimes Tribunal. He looks like he has a mild headache and that’s about you know…I just didn’t buy the character so…
NS: And I think because the character was so kind of like unmemorable, sadly, I kind of clung to like the little bits of like interesting moments in the musical which were maybe the song about sambal belacan, where you kind of see the people come to life a little bit and there’s humour, and–
ML: It was at least some fun, probably the most entertaining part of it. But I couldn’t get over… I mean, Naeem you talked about a mild headache, the sound mixing – Shah Tahir, it was, it was so bad. It was all “ssss”, there was no bottom end to the voices. It was all around five kilohertz and it’s just daggers into your brain. Whereas compare that with Urinetown – Jeffrey Yue, that was perfect. It’s so hard to do and yet every voice was full and rich and yet didn’t interfere with the band. This was, as Nabilah said earlier amateur hour, and it shouldn’t be with the professionals involved. So I think everything unfortunately went it quite wrong from the very beginning here. Which brings us to the end. It’s a sad end. It’s a damning end. We will see some excellent theatre, we will come back and report on it at some point in the distant future.
NS: There’s a lot of theatre happening actually.
NK: A lot of theatre happening, but not this month.
ML: Sorry about that. Right, we shall go away and be less horrible to the people we love in our lives. Thank you very much, and goodbye.
NK: Thank you.
NS: Thank you.
Urinetown: The Musical was presented by Pangdemonium from 27 Sep to 13 Oct 2019 at Drama Centre Theatre in Singapore. More info here. Lim Boon Keng – The Musical, by Musical Theatre Ltd, took place on 10 to 13 October at Victoria Theatre in Singapore. More info here.