Time Out Singapore: ‘Takizawa Kabuki’

11 Aug 2015: Japanese theatrical extravaganza Takizawa Kabuki marks its tenth anniversary by coming to Singapore for its international debut. Gwen Pew hits Tokyo to chat with the star of the show

Takizawa Kabuki

It is almost 10pm when we emerge from the Shinbashi Enbujo Theatre in Tokyo. Despite it being an unusually cold evening for that time of year, a huge crowd of female fans gathers outside the back door. Their cause? To catch a glimpse of their idol, the actor-singer Hideaki Takizawa.

You wouldn’t be able to tell from his boyish good looks, but Takizawa – affectionately known as Tackey – is 33 years old. Taken in by Johnny & Associates, Japan’s largest male talent agency, when he was just 16, Takizawa struck gold as one-half of the J-Pop duo Tackey & Tsubasa before rising up the ranks and gaining the trust of Johnny Kitagawa, the agency’s founder. ‘Johnny decided that I should get into acting,’ he tells us. ‘So I did.’

TV dramas, commercials and theatre followed, and now he’s the star of Takizawa Kabuki, a modern and colourful take on the four-centuries-old art form that’s making its international debut on our shores this month.

Takizawa Kabuki, like most of its home country, is an intriguing if perplexing mix of the old and the new. ‘There’s no other show like this in Japan,’ says the fresh-faced talent. ‘Johnny wanted to stage something that’s in line with the Japanese taste, but still create something very different.’ Under Kitagawa’s supervision, Takizawa is also directing the spectacle.

Takizawa mentions that in Japan, he watches everything from Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas to kabuki and family-friendly shows like Peter Pan, so he can incorporate different elements into his own production. A curious combination of J-Pop, comedy, drama, acrobatics, shadow play, kabuki and more, Takizawa Kabukidefies traditional definition – and it’s a sight to behold.

One of the more memorable scenes is an impressive Taiko drumming segment, in which 40 bare-chested men hammer their instruments while Takizawa – and his drum kit – are slowly turned upside-down. There’s no room for error. The backstage crew manually control everything, from hoisting actors up in the air to backdrop changes, with an elaborate pulley system. Clearly, no expenses were spared.

The kabuki scenes are just as visually arresting. We’re also treated to one in which the cast members apply makeup on stage – something even Japanese audiences aren’t usually privy to. However, those aching for an authentic kabuki experience can look elsewhere, perhaps to Ebizo Ichikawa XI’s return to the city in October.

While Takizawa Kabuki will be tweaked for local audiences, and a few scenes – especially those that require surtitles – may be nixed, we’ll nonetheless get to have extra fun with a snow machine. ‘Singapore doesn’t get to experience snow,’ Takizawa says. ‘So we want to bring the snow there.’ It makes sense, since the theme for this year’s edition is ‘Four Seasons of Japan’.

Yet whatever the weather, you can be sure of one thing, as evidenced from our trip to the Land of the Rising Sun: it’s not gonna stop the hordes of fan girls. You have been warned.

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Time Out Singapore: Alternative SG50 Logos

6 Aug 2015: We got ten artists and designers to put their spin on the unfortunately ubiquitous SG50 logo. They’re way better than the actual thing, if you ask us. Here are three examples

Wanton Doodle - SG50

By Wanton Doodle

‘It’s often said that the people make a nation, but I feel that our city’s skyline also speaks volumes. This pieces personifies the past structure as they co-exist with current and future ones.’

Yen Phang - SG50

By Yen Phang

‘I was exploring the idea of (an also paying tribute to) Singapore as a garden city, particularly the beautiful improbability of man-shaped nature within an urban city.’

Darren Soh - SG50

By Darren Soh

‘I used People’s Park Complex as the backdrop. It’s neither new nor fancy, but it embodies a small island growing into nationhood when it was built in the ’70s.’

Time Out Singapore: ‘The LKY Musical’ Review

1 Aug 2015: This hyped-up musical, starring the excellent Adrian Pang as Lee Kuan Yew, is as slickly put together as it is predictable

★★★☆☆

The LKY Musical - Watson Lau

Photo by Watson Lau

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.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ Review

23 Jul 2015: If you’re looking to have a splashing good time, check out this West End smash hit – it’s almost impossible not to come out of the theatre grinning

★★★★☆

Singin in the Rain - Hagen Hopkins

Photo by Hagen Hopkins

As the stage version of Gene Kelly’s beloved film Singin’ in the Rain splish-splashes into town, we went into the theatre expecting a good time. And we weren’t disappointed. A gorgeous flurry of colour, humour and upbeat tunes, it’s the kind of show that checks all the feel-good boxes and urges you to leave your worries at the door.

Set in the ’20s, the show opens at the premiere of a silent movie, starring Don Lockwood (Duane Alexander) and Lina Lamont (Taryn-Lee Hudson). Despite their onscreen romance, Don can’t stand Lina, whose comically terrible voice also puts her at odds with her studio, which is hoping to embrace the talkies. So the studio heads enlist an aspiring actress, Kathy Seldon (Bethany Dickson), to be her voiceover artist. And here’s another spanner in the works: Kathy and Don fall head over heels with each other, leaving behind one jealous and angry Lina.

The cast is great to watch, and there’s a lot of chemistry between them. The two female leads – Hudson and Dickson – stand out by singing beautifully and deliberately horrendously, respectively, while Steven van Wyk shines in his role as Don’s loyal yet overlooked best friend, Cosmo Brown. As a result of these very strong actors, however, Alexander’s performance as Don does come across as somewhat bland, though not to the point at which it affects the overall experience.

The set is kept simple for the production, a good call as it allows us to focus on the impressive costumes and choreography. This is most evident in the number ‘The Broadway Ballet’, in which almost the entire cast performs in a brightly coloured dance sequence. Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed’s songs are still catchy more than half a century after the fact, and they’re all wonderfully sung by the cast and well supported by the live orchestra.

But of course, the scene that everyone’s waiting for is the title song, performed at the end of the first act and reprised during the finale. We’re told that 12,000l of water is used in each performance, as the stage – and the audience members in the first four rows – gets drenched. It’s a sight to behold, and so much fun that it’s bound to unleash your inner five-year-old.

The show is the perfect way to de-stress after a long day, so get in there, kick back, sing along, and know that you’ll come out with that ‘glorious feelin’’, and ‘be happy again’.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Paul Husner on Bali ‘

1 Jul 2015: Gwen Pew talks to Paul Husner about his artwork

Paul Husner - Arma IV

Paul Husner’s ‘Arma IV’

Swiss artist Paul Husner’s first love led him to his second. It started when his anthropologist wife, Tine, wanted to study the Batak culture in Sumatra. The couple arrived in 1983: ‘Tine to conduct her research, me to draw and paint,’ he tells us. It wasn’t long before the couple settled down in Ubud, Bali – and more than three decades later, Husner still spends his time capturing the beauty of the Island of the Gods.

‘The light in Bali has a remarkable quality that captivates me. It’s unlike light you can find anywhere else in the world,’ he says. ‘The light, to me, represents the spirit of the environment. I knew I was in a place that best allowed me to express myself.’

His oil paintings are characterised by their bright colours and bold lines; viewers can almost feel the tropical heat radiating from the canvas.

But they’re more than just pretty landscapes, Husner insists: ‘I do not view [Bali] as merely an exotic locale; it is a magnificent conduit whose light allows me to give form to colour, and composition to form. As an artist, I do not aspire to merely create things of beauty. I wish to faithfully represent the truth of my subject matter through analysis and a distillation of structures to their simplest form.’

Time Out Singapore: ‘The Imagination of the Future’ Review

Imagination of the Future - Kevin Lee : CAKE images

Photo by Kevin Lee/CAKE images

30 Jun 2015: Lights, camera… and a crew of hysterical PR gurus and government ministers bursts onto the set, screaming at one another to get ready before the president arrives. The wheel of time has been set in motion. For the next hour and a half, we are taken to a reimagined Chile in 1973.

Staged by Teatro La Re-sentida as part of The OPEN Festival, The Imagination of the Future is a masterpiece. In order to truly appreciate its genius, however, it’s worth taking some time to understand the history and context within which the play is set. In a nutshell, Salvador Allende became the president of Chile in 1970, and while he implemented a series of programmes that improved the lives of many lower- and middle-class citizens, not everyone welcomed his socialist agenda.

A coup was finally staged on September 11, 1973, when the military bombed the presidential palace. Allende made a famous farewell speech live on radio, and then chose to commit suicide rather than resign or surrender. The 17-year dictatorship that followed was one of the darkest and most brutal chapters in South America’s history.

In the Chilean company’s play – which is performed in Spanish with English surtitles – the cast takes the key events that happened in the last days of Allende’s rule and fills in the blanks with a series of ‘what-if’s in a last-ditch attempt to save his vision and his life.

It never pretends to be a history lesson, and yet by taking things to the absolute extreme, Imaginationis able to tackle the past, present and future all at once. It’s especially relevant now as what’s known as the ‘Chilean winter’ – a wave of student protests against income inequality and the lack of public universities – has been sweeping through the country in recent years after decades of silence.

The play daringly portrays the legendary figure of Allende as a droopy but stubborn old man with a penchant for cocaine, who needs to take regular 30min naps. His team of young communication specialists and ministers, by contrast, is fuelled by a different type of Coke (of the Diet variety), and obsessed with how best to market his image.

Not a dull moment can be found in this high-energy performance, which is deftly directed by Marco Layera. At times, the manic disorder and exaggerated shouting can get a bit much, but those scenes are thankfully balanced out by quieter moments that give the audience time and space to grasp the gravity and inevitability of the troubles.

Intensely funny and tragic at the same time, Imagination is not the kind of work that we can simply sit back and enjoy. Visually, we’re constantly assaulted with chaos in the form of fistfights and graphic descriptions of Pinochet’s horrific regime. Morally, it raises a series of challenging questions. How would you spend $50: to help a child in need, or to see a woman take her clothes off? Can revolution and democracy ever go hand in hand? What is the role of the media in presenting a country’s history?

So much ground is covered in such a short period of time, but the actors remain committed throughout, the performance is well paced, and it never shies away from the heart of those difficult issues. And even though the play itself offers neither answers nor respite, its bold gestures and colourful scenes will linger on, vividly replaying in our minds long after the curtain falls.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Another Country’

22 Jun 2015: In Wild Rice’s upcoming play, ‘Another Country’, the battle of the century unfolds: Singapore versus Malaysia. Ivan Heng tells Gwen Pew more

AnotherCountry

Ivan Heng is reading from a script, his arms flowing and eyes dancing to the rhythm of the words. ‘Every Oriental costume from the Levant to China floats through the streets,’ the Wild Rice co-founder begins. ‘Robes of silk, satin, brocade and white muslin, emphasised by the glitter of barbaric gold and Parsees in spotless white; Jews and Arabs in dark rich silks; Klings in Turkey red and white; Bombay merchants in great white turbans, full trousers and draperies, all white with crimson silk girdles; Malays in red sarongs…’

He pauses to make a point: ‘This was written in 1879. 1879, and not a swamp in sight!’

Which makes it easy to see why, on our nation’s 50th anniversary, the colourful passage was selected as one of the 50-plus published works to be featured in Wild Rice’s upcoming play, Another Country. Lifted from a letter written by English explorer Isabella Bird to her sister during the former’s visit to Singapore, the description of the island is at odds with the version preferred by those who believe in the ‘fishing village to first world’ narrative ascribed to a certain, late political leader. Provocation – along with a good dose of humour – is the crux of the production.

Another Country is, chiefly, a story of two neighbours: Singapore and Malaysia. It explores the relationship between ‘us and them’ – and humanity as a whole – using short stories, plays, interviews and jingoistic songs to bridge the pair. The first half of the performance features texts culled from Singapore’s cultural archive while the second half plumbs from Malaysian works. And the twist: each half is performed by actors from the opposite country.

‘Singapore and Malaysia are like divorcees. Or siblings. Or rivals. We can’t live with them and we can’t live without them,’ muses Heng, who directs the Lion City portion of the play. ‘We share so much with each other: our heritage, our culture, our stories. [The stories in Another Country are] of hope, disgust, strength, humour, love. There’s a sense of longing and wistfulness about them that’s quite romantic, quite sayang [a Malay word with dual meanings: ‘love’ and ‘with pity’].’

Through the barricades

The chosen texts date back to the 15th century. Alfian Sa’at, who curates the Singaporean works, explains that while he was led by his ‘idiosyncratic taste in both the literature produced about Singapore and by Singaporeans’, he opted for a ‘broad historical sweep’. Texts from the Malay annals, writings from colonial travellers, Singaporeans writing in exile, songs about the Little Red Dot and even the work of Catherine Lim and Michael Chiang make appearances. ‘I was very conscious that I wasn’t performing a canonising function,’ Alfian adds.

And not a rabble-rousing function, either. Malaysian playwright Leow Puay Tin – he’s Alfian’s northern equivalent inAnother Country – insists his chosen texts serve not to mend fences but break them altogether.

‘In his poem “Salam Benua (Greetings to the Continent)”, the Malaysian National Laureate Usman Awang urges us to choose not to be separated by “passports, visas and frontiers”, which are all “names for barriers”,’ recalls Leow. ‘The world would be a better place for all of us if we could follow him in sending our greetings past these arbitrary man-made barriers, to humanity, to the people of all continents.’

Heng agrees with Leow’s message of amity. He believes Another Country is, above all, about peace. ‘Peace is the ability to put yourself in others’ shoes and understand one another as human beings,’ he says. ‘We all want to be happy. It’s a utopia, of course, but we try.’

Time Out Singapore: ‘Singapura – The Musical’ Review

10 Jun 2015: The made-in-Philippines musical about Singapore isn’t ready for the world stage yet, but Gwen Pew believes that it nonetheless shows potential

★★★☆☆

Photo: Singapura - The Musical

Photo: Singapura – The Musical

So we got to the party a little late for this one. Amid rumours that Singapura: The Musical was going to close earlier than expected, we decided to hold our horses. But once The 4th Wall, the Filipino company behind the production, confirmed that it will go on for a couple more weeks – although the exact closing date has been adjusted a few times since – we headed for the beautifully refurbished Capitol Theatre.

We’re glad we waited. The musical has been cast in a pretty negative light so far, but it’s since had time to settle in and for minor elements to be tweaked. And while the show we saw had its flaws, there’s plenty of promise – all hope is not lost.

Singapura tells the story of the Tan family, headed by bus driver Tan Kok Yang (Juliene Mendoza) and his wife Bee Ling (Maybelle Ti) as they struggle through the decade prior to Singapore’s independence. It centres on the smart, headstrong daughter Lee May (Marian Santiago), who goes to law school to learn to fight for what she believes in and ends up caught in a love triangle between British officer Lieutenant Flynn (David Bianco) and her Malay childhood friend Adam (Reb Atadero) – no doubt emblems for the two sides that Singapore was caught in between at the time.

By now, most people would have read the reviews, which definitely do make salient points. At almost two and a half hours, the show is too long. Parts such as the Empress Dowager drifting across the stage at the beginning, or the song during which dancers from different races that make up Singapore come together, can – and should – be cut altogether.

On other fronts, we saw things a little differently. The inconsistent accents that many have flagged up, for instance, hardly bothered us. Sure, you can tell that the mostly Filipino actors are not native Singlish speakers, and their manner of speech understandably doesn’t go down well with the local audience. But when – or if – it does travel to other countries, their relatively neutral accents, lightly tinged with traces of our dialect, will hardly be a concern.

Off to see the world, Ma!

Singapura is, ostensibly, a family drama – not an odyssey into the historical annals of the Lion City. The show demands it be appreciated as such: the Tans in the foreground, the independence of Singapore only as context and a backdrop. Unfortunately, Singapura shoots itself in the foot by cramming in too much, muddling its script and toppling its poise.

Crucially, the company hopes to bring the story to the world stage. While local theatregoers may confuse Singapura with an elementary social studies class, an international audience won’t. After all, their perception of our fair city is built upon the concrete of Marina Bay Sands and not the rubble of our pre-1965 years.

And, really, even if Singaporeans are already aware of these pivotal moments, scenes like the Hock Lee bus riots, the race riots and the Konfrontasi have hardly – if ever – been enacted so vividly on our own stages.

It’s a shame that despite us going to a Saturday night show, the audience barely occupied a quarter of the theatre. Nonetheless, the cast soldiered on. Their acting borders on melodramatic at times, but most of the show is performed through song, and the power of their vocal chords is phenomenal. They are also well supported by the orchestra, which brought to life composer Ed Gatchalian’s melodic score.

Singapura still feels like a first draft. There’s a lot of polishing to be done before it becomes a story we can be proud of. They’ve already modified little things – they told us they’ve made alterations including ‘a lyric change here, a lighting change there; a shortened intro here, a blocking change there’ – but we’re hoping they’ll eventually get around to working on the more major issues, too.

And if they do, you can bet your ticket that we’ll be the first ones there.

Time Out Singapore: ‘Breakfast at 8, Jungle at 9’

8 Jun 2015: Photographer Ernest Goh is about to take over Objectifs with a whole lotta dead creepy-crawlies

Breakfast8Jungle9

A couple of years ago, Ernest Goh came across a 1992 study that concluded people tend to better appreciate a present if it’s been gift-wrapped. As he mulled over the concept of packaging, it occurred to him that the myriad of flora and fauna we are surrounded by is, likewise, a kind of wrapping paper that helps to make our rocky planet more beautiful.

Once he struck upon that idea, he knew he had to explore it in more detail. And so, at the end of 2014, he published The Gift Book. It features 15 sheets of glossy wrapping paper, but instead of the generic patterns of polka dots or stripes, they are printed with specimens of creepy-crawlies and flowers found around Goh’s home, arranged in a tile-like pattern.

‘I wanted to expose people to these animals that will normally make them go “ew!”, and show them that they are actually very beautiful,’ he explains. ‘Hopefully, after seeing these photos, they won’t want to kill them anymore.’

Goh’s fascination with creatures goes back a long way, when he and his brother spent their childhood running around his grandmother’s kampong, catching fish and fighting spiders. When he partnered Panasonic on a project in the mid-noughties, he used his father’s collection of goldfish as the subject matter – and immediately fell in love with the art of capturing living creatures. He moved on from shooting fish to shooting snakes, orangutans, chickens and beetles. But now, he’s interested in dead animals.

It began two years ago, when he heard that the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum would be opening. He approached the team, and was invited to create a 12m-long mural in the museum’s lobby. He spent four days taking photos of a whole bunch of mounted animals – all while the place was being built.

‘Shooting living animals is difficult because you want to capture their sense of life, but when you’re shooting dead animals, the challenge is to inject a sense of life into them by focusing on their colours, textures and other details,’ he explains. ‘People have a preconceived idea when they go to a natural history museum that it’s filled with these old, dusty stuffed animals. Since that is what they’re going to be seeing, I didn’t want my mural to reinforce that idea. Instead, I want to present them in a different way.’

And so he decided to revisit the geometric patterns he used in The Gift Book. The resulting work, titled ‘Breakfast at 8, Jungle at 9’, is a kaleidoscopic map of concentric circles showcasing the museum’s collection. This month, 16 prints from both The Gift Book and ‘Breakfast at 8, Jungle at 9’ are displayed at Objectifs’ new gallery space. But rather than just exhibiting the prints, Goh’s not done toying with the idea of gift-wrapping yet.

When we met, he’d just gotten off the phone with his supplier. ‘Supplier for what?’ we ask. ‘Stickers,’ he replies. His plan is to print hundreds of stickers, each depicting one of the animals in his images. Visitors to the gallery will then be encouraged to stick them all over a selection of everyday objects, including a full-sized car. The point, of course, is to help us see both the objects and the animals they’re soon to be covered with in a different light, so we can learn to value both equally. The title of the piece is, appropriately, ‘Time to Wrap Up’.

Time Out Singapore: Survive an Art Show with the Kids

5 Jun 2015: We get some tips from Rachel Ng, the lead curator of ‘Imaginarium’ about helping kids tackle the world of art

Artwork: Chiang Yu Xiang

Artwork: Chiang Yu Xiang

1) ‘Use simple and accessible terms to communicate the key ideas behind the work. Imaginarium uses slightly shorter accompanying text, but most of the time, exhibitions aren’t tailored specially for children. Profound concepts and difficult language might be used in the captions, which can be difficult for them to understand. Bear in mind that their attention spans are much shorter, too. Parents can distil the core idea and share that in their own words.’

2) ‘Ask the children questions about the work. Setting up this casual conversation between parent and child is really impactful because it compels the child to think about the work and form his or her own response to it. This process of articulation aids the thinking process about art and, in time, helps shape the child’s individual tastes and judgment.’

3) ‘Ultimately, there is no one right or wrong interpretation, and that’s the most important thing to remember when explaining an artwork. Art appreciation is highly individual and subjective – that’s the beauty of it. It encourages and makes room for a diversity of opinions and reactions. Parents should definitely share their own opinions about the work aside from the caption explanation, so that the child’s encounter with art becomes a more personalised experience.’