Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress Musical Review (An inside view)
This is probably going to be one of my most biased reviews (ok, I should say, heartfelt instead), having my boyfriend as one of the ensemble in the musical. 😛 But before you guys click the “x” button to close the screen, I can probably provide some of the more personal + intimate sneaks provided by the cast themselves, so you should definitely read on!
Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress was Peps’ first ever theatre project, and he was a little overwhelmed initially, as it was quite a huge leap to go from screen acting to theatre acting + singing. For over 7 weeks, he had to go for rehearsals from 11am to 10pm, 6 days a week.
Confession: The daily recounts he gave of what happened during the day, what he learnt, both in terms of theatre work as well as from the veteran casts made me a teeny weeny envious. To be participating in one of Singapore’s most successful musicals, what’s the chance of that for someone with no prior theatre experience? So you could imagine how much I was looking forward to watching this musical after hearing so much about it!
SUMMARY: American artist Kate Carl (Steffanie Leigh) is invited to paint the portrait of the Empress of China, Cixi. Along the journey, she met George Morrison (Earl Carpenter), an English journalist. As intimidated as she was (by the initial perception gathered from the public) by the Empress Cixi, whom was thought to be a cold and ruthless ruler who was obsessed by the power, so much so that it was said that she killed her biological son.
In spite of that, Kate formed a strange bond with the Empress while she paints and listens. As the Empress tells her about her story – a tale of injustice and tragedy that she had suffered in her lifetime. And whilst Kate empathises with the lonely ‘Dragon Lady’, she writes to Morrison, sharing with him the unfolding truth of the past…
Learning the Chinese History through an English Musical?
Ever find that a little odd? To watch an English musical about the Chinese history. If you do, you aren’t alone. I’m a fan of Chinese historical period dramas, and it was a dream to be able to one day, act in one myself someday. And when I first realised that the Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress was going to be in English, I couldn’t help but find it a little odd. It was refreshing to watch the legendary Empress Dowager Cixi back in the Qing period from the eyes of the Westerners. I love how there were so many sides of the Dragon lady presented by both Kate Carl (Steffanie Leigh) and George Morrison (Earl Carpenter), in a cohesive and clear way as the events roll out and the condensed history presents itself in front of our eyes. The story telling came from the powerful Empress herself, and it was told realistically like how one does a recount of her own life story – personal, close to heart and of course, in snippets. When the events were twisted by George Morrison, you can’t help but feel angry. Yet again, isn’t how life is like right now too, with both mainstream media and social media manipulating facts and stories?
P.S. A review from ST Arts Correspondent Akshita Nanda and previously Straits Times reviewer Clarissa Oon (2002) pointed out how the musical “should have shown how her political skills were honed to a knife’s edge by the cut-throat atmosphere of the royal harem.” I thought otherwise. By the time reimagined Cixi shared her story, she had already rose beyond the rest of the concubines. What was presented were the memories that she missed most (romance with the Emperor) or the ones that hurt her the most (abandon by the Emperor, separation from her own child and the court machinations which led to her need to fight for survival).
The Three Yehenara-s
I haven’t watched the previous staging of Portrait of an Empress where Kit Chan played both the young Yehenara and the middle-aged empress, so I won’t know if the original was better. But I do know I love the current power of three, after all, three’s a charm ~
Three actresses play the Empress Cixi, representing the three main stages of her life. Cheryl Tan as the young concubine Yehenara gave the audience the dreamy and idealistic girl in search of her true love in the cold palace. Kit Chan, the musical’s crowd-puller, brought out the motherly and helpless side of the empress, swayed by politics. And if the story of Empress Dowager Cixi is an embroidery, Sheila P. Francisco is the needle that threads the audience in and out of her life throughout the musical. She is the Empress Dowager, the lady forced to be a dragon in the present and sometimes a shadow of her past.
I love Cheryl’s voice the most, youthful, clear and powerful. Perhaps it was because I could relate to her emotions and her hopes for true love, (she has, afterall, the whole of Act 1 to set up her character), it wasn’t difficult to be drawn to her and see why her character shines amongst the rest concubines. When crowd-puller Kit Chan appeared in the second Act, I was surprised by how little scenes she had. If only there’s more scenes developing her character as the embattled Yehenera. Sheila P. Francisco is emotive and her pain and loneliness as the ageing Empress Dowager Cixi could be felt amongst the audience especially when she discovered the betrayal.
Supporting Cast and The Ensemble
The numerous male supporting cast also helps to balance the female-centric musical, – the emperor (Bright Ong), the ambitious Prince Tun (Benjamin Chow), the spoilt son Tung Chih (Tan Shou Chen) and the scholarly nephew Kang Hsu (Dwayne Tan), showing how men played a huge part in Cixi’s life back then.
Having the behind-the-scenes knowledge of what the ensemble had to go through, it was difficult not to be impressed with them. Not only do they have to take up several roles at one time, the quick costume changes (especially the gorgeous but heavy headgears for the ladies) were done flawlessly as they turn from civilians to concubines and eunuchs, prostitutes and soldiers.
Personal Favourites & Letdowns
Having Dwayne Lau and Sebastian Tan as the comedic Record Keepers helped to lighten up the otherwise heavy-hearted and solemn musical. Their presence hinted how the history could be warped and swayed. Appearing at whim, they provided timely insights, and surprisingly never show-stealing.
One of my favourite scenes is the growing up of Emperor Kang Hsu during the song Let The Tale Be Told in Act 2. It was fun to watch how he grows up as the actors were swapped in and out with ingenious stagecraft tricks and it felt just like the fast-forwarding of years on screen.
If the riots, fights and deaths are the ‘yang’ pinnacle moments of the musical, the appearance of the courtesans is the ‘yin’ climax. The female ensemble’s sultry dance performance as the stunning courtesans was a visual feast for the eyes (Yes, even for the female eyes :P) My jaw literally dropped when they made their appearances and they REALLY took my mind off the chaos – no wonder Prince Tuan brings Kang Hsu to the brothel!
As the musical was designed specially for Esplanade Theatre, I enjoy watching the transformation of the set taking place in front of stage with Francis O’Connor’s brilliant multifunctional set design. The flexible frames depict the towering walls of the palace might seem a little empty to some, but I would like to see it as a metaphor for the condition of the Qing Dynasty – a empty interior beneath a fine exterior（金玉其外，败絮其中）, adding another depth to the ingenious design. I also love how part of the deep stage was revealed only when necessary – when the mourners carry the body and march slowly into the stage back, it somehow adds the sense of bowing out and diminishing of the era.
Theatre review is not my strength, as I’m much more used to watching films, where I can see every characters’ expressions up close, concentrating on one moment at a time. Also, in contrast to most normal audience who will concentrate on the main cast, I have a natural tendency to steer my attention towards the ensemble where Peps is (duh, he’s my boyfriend!).
Splitting my attention between the main cast and the ensemble who provide many nuances to the musical, I felt a little overwhelmed. I left the theatre feeling that I might have missed out many details and moments the director had dropped in – there are moments where both Kate and Empress Dowager overlooked her past young self, and there is a whole other story between the young Yehenara and the Emperor, or her son, as the ensemble provide another act to add to the depth of the already-rich visuals. This made me feel the need to watch it once more to better appreciate the musical.
Another part where I felt that it slight fall short was in Act 2. Immediately after the chaos of the riot scene that represents; the 100 days reform, the following civil war and the boxer’s rebellion. It was then brought to a sharp end, punctuated by gunshots. And a pocket of quiet followed immediately. Prince Tun’s reentrance happens promptly along with it a heartfelt monologue. That moment felt really powerful to me.
After his deafening death scene (which may I add, was really terrific), it led straight into a haunting ballad by the ensemble. And then again, without gap followed by “Why dream of love” by Kit’s empress, which in that moment seemed to pale in contrast to the moments before, at least in sheer emotional value. Like what Akshita Nanda says, “He dies so well during the Boxer Rebellion that it is impossible to focus on Chan’s power ballad immediately after.”
It was almost as if the strong use of silence for Prince Tun stole the show away from the empress’ moment which was supposed to be the highlight if I’m not mistaken. That leads me to wonder if the placement of that pocket of silence was placed in the best moment it could have. Often, we forget how a pause can be the most devastating effect in music, and the loudest part is the powerful use of silence. But I may be wrong.
Special thanks to Singapore Repertory Theatre for the tickets to the Portrait of an Empress Gala night as well as Priscilla, aka Pingerrain, the theatre/musical guru, who accompanied me to the musical and shared her sharp insights! There’s only few days left before the musical ends, so do catch them before they are gone!
WHERE: Esplanade Theatre, 1 Esplanade Drive | MRT: City Hall/ Esplanade
WHEN: Till Aug 27, 8pm (Tuesdays to Fridays), 3 and 8pm (Saturdays), 1.30 and 6pm (Sundays)
ADMISSION: $38 to $138 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)
DO YOU KNOW? (Trivia)
- Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress was back for the fourth time in Singapore. It was created 15 years ago by Singapore Repertory Theatre for the Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay’s opening celebration in 2002. There were over 100,000 tickets sold in its first three stagings, the last of which was in 2006.
– The musical was based on a true incident that happened in 1904, when painter Kate Carl was invited to paint the portrait of Empress Dowager Cixi. The production team came across this line in a book that Kate said to the Dragon Lady, “If you want me to paint the real you, I need to know the real you“. From this sentence, the production team spun it off and created the musical, Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress, telling an epic tale of the the Empress Dowager Cixi’s life from a young concubine to a lonely old ruler of China that no one understands her sorrows and sacrifice for the peace of the country.
– Cheryl Tan, who played the young Yehenara in Act 1, is of Chinese-Indian parentage. She was born in Kuala Lumpur, hence speaks Malay because she learnt the language in school. Her favourite number was the reprise of My Only Chance at the end of Act 1. This is where Yehenara really takes charge of her own fate and triumphs despite overwhelming odds.
– The role of Cixi was tailor-made for Kit Chan but this will be the last time she’s playing it. She bumped into Dick Lee in the airport and was approached to do Portrait of an Empress. She shared one of her most embarrassing moments back then when she was playing the young Yehenara was when she went onstage with a wardrobe malfunction. She forgot to wear her skirt in one of the scenes, and was wearing only pants and tunic. She didn’t notice until halfway through, and there was still another 10-15 minutes before she could go off stage.
– Besides Kit Chan, there were several other returning cast members who performed in the previous rendition of the Portrait of an Empress musical. Sheila Francisco, played the Empress Dowager throughout the 4 renditions of the musical. Sebastian Tan also reprised his role as the record-keeper, this time donning the white outfit instead of the black. Dwayne Tan returned again as the adult Kuang Hsu and ensemble, Gordon Choy who was part of the ensemble back then, is now both the fight choreographer and the ensemble. Hui Xuan, an ensemble in the 2006 run, 11 years ago, is now back as an associate choreographer.
– Bright Ong, who played the Emperor, tore two ligaments on 20th August, during warm ups before a show. As there is no understudy nor stand-in for the musical, the dance and fight choreography was tweaked so that he can perform the rest of the 9 shows without worsening his injury. #TheShowMustGoOn
- The Esplanade Theatre has a hidden pit in front of the stage, that most audience might have missed, where the live band performed every time during the musical. A mixture of Western and Chinese musical instruments were used to present the East meets West musical.
- Award-winning British playwright, librettist and lyricist Stephen Clark, who was part of the creative team of the musical (book and lyrics) together with composer Dick Lee and Director Steven Dexter, pass away on Oct 15 2016. Clark, also worked on three well-received musicals, namely Sing To The Dawn in 1996, Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress in 2002, as well as The LKY Musical in 2015.
Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress Interviews and Behind The Scenes
Ever wonder how is the fourth rendition of the Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress different to the cast who had previously performed in the past three staging? Or how do they relate to the characters of the past? Peps managed to get up close and personal with some the casts as well as the director to share some of their thoughts with you guys!
FORBIDDEN CITY: PORTRAIT OF AN EMPRESS CAST (in order of appearance):
Kate Carl: Steffanie Leigh | George Morrison: Earl Carpenter | Empress Dowager: Sheila Francisco | Young Yehenara: Cheryl Tan | Grand Eunuch: Edward Choy | Emperor: Bright Ong | Record Keeper 1: Dwayne Lau | Record Keeper 2: Sebastian Tan | Prince Tun: Benjamin Chow | Tung Chih (4 year-old): Gratus Aw Jing En, Aloysius Sin, Ryan Wiluan | Yehenara: Kit Chan | Tung Chih: Tan Shou Chen | Prince Tuan: Juni Goh | Kuang Hsu (9 year-old): Emiliano Cyrus, Neo Le Yang, Ryan Tan | Kuang Hsu (15 year-old): Huang Xinyu Kevin, Matthew Loo | Kuang Hsu: Dwayne Tan
Male Ensemble: Gordon Choy (Fight Choreographer), Peps Goh, Benjamin Harris, Benedict Hew, Xavier Kang, Leslie Leow, Juni Goh, Tan Shou Chen, Dwayne Tan, Edward Choy
Female Ensemble: Abby Lai, Ann Lek, Alyssa Lie, Tan Rui Shan, Millicent Wong, Natalie Yeap, Tanya Ang
SRT’s The Young Company Ensemble: Iris Li, Louisa Vilinne
Live Band Musicians: Tony Ang, Gabriel Hoe, Christine Sham, Tan Kian Wee, Brandon Wong, Darrel Xin, Ramu Thiruyanam, Vicknes Veerappan
Music Director & Conductor: Joel Nah | Music Arranger: Bang Wenfu
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*Disclosure: Images of the Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress and tickets were provided with compliments from Singapore Repertory Theatre. No monetary compensation was received for the review.