FORBIDDEN CITY by Singapore Repertory Theatre

Forbidden City

Reviewer: Selina Chong
Performance: 12 August 2017

This is the fourth time the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) and Esplanade are staging Forbidden City, a local musical with music and lyrics by Dick Lee and Stephen Clark. This is also the third time I’ve seen the production, and am heartened to have seen it evolve through the times.

Sheila Francisco and Kit Chan reprise their roles as the Empress Dowager at two different stages of her life. This year, Cheryl Tan also joins the duo and plays the younger Yehenara. To be honest, I exited the theatre after the first half feeling disappointed because I had expected Kit Chan,  based on the pre-show publicity. That said, Cheryl Tan is excellent: her voice is clear and she has the necessary stage presence. When she sings “My Only Chance”, there is enough hope and desperation to tug at the heartstrings. Kit Chan’s instrument has changed with age and when she belts out the big notes in “Why Dream of Love?”, it falls just short of a punch. In fact, compared to the other two actors playing Yehenara/Empress Dowager, I felt Kit Chan was, surprisingly, the weakest.

The ensemble cast does not disappoint. Steffanie Leigh’s portrayal of American painter Kate Carl is commendable. Her strong pipes fills the hall in the opening number, “Dragon Lady”. In her duets with Morrison, played by Earl Carpenter, she easily overpowers him and consequently, he comes across unengaging and rather dull. Sebastian Tan and Dwayne Lau also provide much entertainment as the court’s record keepers. They share good chemistry and work well to set the appropriate tone for the scene. In the first half, they are jolly and bring great energy to the stage; in the second half, they sombrely narrate the Hundred Days’ Reform and Boxer Rebellion.

Dick Lee’s music has come to be very familiar to Singaporeans. The music he has written for Forbidden City is melodic and rousing. The catchier numbers like “Starting with the Eyes” and “Summer Palace” share hummable motifs, while the emotive pieces like “My Only Chance” and “Why Dream of Love?” are deeply stirring. To me, Lee’s music is what makes Forbidden City a cultural icon in Singapore.

Forbidden City is a very competent musical: the set is nimble, the costumes are pretty, and the music stands the test of time, much like the Forbidden City itself. It is, in essence, a crowd pleaser. Given its popularity, it is little wonder SRT and Esplanade restaged it 15 years after it was commissioned for the Esplanade Opening Festival in 2002. It is a suitably grand gesture.

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FORBIDDEN CITY by Singapore Repertory Theatre
8 – 27 August 2017
Esplanade Theatre


Selina loves the theatre and its ability to engage, enrapture, and entertain. The magic of the stage never ceases to create joy and wonder for her. The potential of the theatre to educate also dovetails with her teacher duties and she wishes more young people had time to watch a show instead of attend another tuition lesson.