NANYANG, The Musical: More Melodic Than Artistic

NANYANG, The Musical tells the story of Nanyang artists through music and lyrics.

This year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts opens with director Alec Tok’s NANYANG, The Musical. The musical marks Tok’s return to the Singapore stage after 15 years spent making theatre abroad and is loosely based on the lives of pioneering Nanyang artists. The musical is staged at the Drama Centre Theatre from August 6-8, in conjunction with Singapore’s jubilant celebrations.

Background of Nanyang artists under 1 minute: Singapore was known as Nanyang or 南洋 (Southern Seas in literal translation) in the late 18th century (artyii, 2011). Seeking their fortunes in the British colony, many Chinese immigrants made the arduous journey to Nanyang. Among the migrants were the Nanyang artists. Nanyang artists are Chinese painters schooled in both Western and Chinese painting art styles and whom were not concerned with embracing Western painting techniques to improve their craft. Thus, the Nanyang style was created. The four pioneering Nanyang artists were Cheong Soo Pieng, Chen Chong Swee, Chen Wen Hsi and Liu Kang.

PHOTO: Kevin Lee

PHOTO: Kevin Lee

The musical begins in 1930s Shanghai. Young artist extraordinaire, Chen Kang (Roy Huang) arrives at Xinhua Art Academy to improve his craft where he meets teacher Zhang Wen (Trev Neo) and fellow talented artists; Li Ying (Seong Hui Xuan), Yue Ping (Andrea Xing XiYu) and Ren Hao (Dennis Heng). Cupid’s arrow struck Chen Kang, and he falls in love with Li Ying. But Li Ying has to travel to America to be with her sick father. No sooner has he arrived, Shanghai becomes increasingly unstable with war, prompting the teacher and his artists friends to travel to Paris. There, the artists sought to support the Motherland’s war efforts against the Japanese by selling off their artworks.

The group reunited with Li Ying in Nazi-occupied Paris, and the auction was a success but love takes a hit as Chen Kang realises that Li Ying is in love with their teacher. The group make their way to Bali to get some inspiration where they learnt upon arriving that their esteemed teacher has secrets of his own – a wife and child. They finally made their way to Nanyang (conquered by the Japanese in the mise en scène) where they faced the death in the group.

PHOTO: Kevin Lee

PHOTO: Kevin Lee

There is nothing un-musical about NANYANG, The Musical. In fact, the music and its lyrics was its medium of choice to paint the story. With award-winning lyricist Xiaohan and composer Eric Ng – the powerhouse songwriting duo behind hit musicals “Liao Zhai Rocks” and “Lao Jiu”, and career-defining hits for A-Mei, Sandy Lam, Stefanie Sun, Tanya Chua and others – in the creative team, soulful tunes and stirring lyrics were unsurprisingly expected. In the opening scene, Roy Huang performs a song ‘Gun and paintbrush, which is tougher?‘ that broods over the spirit of the times.

I was very impressed by the musical’s intricate set by set designer Izmir Ickbal. The use of canvases and projectors to tell the story of the times in-between the transition of scenes was also clever.

PHOTO: Kevin Lee

PHOTO: Kevin Lee

What was unexpected was how unrepresentative it was as a supposed ode to Nanyang artists. Where the song and dance was thick in layers, the plot felt thin and underdeveloped.

Because the Nanyang artists were the cornerstone to Singapore and the region’s art movement, I was looking for visual cues of their struggles and endeavours through the lives of the made-up onscreen characters. Instead, the artists’ backstories were trivialised to that of simply, song and dance, love and passion. Nothing wrong with that if that’s what you are looking for.

PHOTO: Kevin Lee

PHOTO: Kevin Lee

The gratification I was looking for was kind of satisfied in the form of a martyred character, revisiting the musical’s opening theme song; ‘Gun or Paintbrush is stronger?’ Maybe I was misguided to have longed for a more granular and perhaps, coarse portrayal of Nanyang artists, but the vanilla musical is not the type of performance SIFA should be known for – pushing the envelope of society and culture.

Overall, NANYANG, The Musical isn’t the bold musical about the Nanyang artists and their art styles but you will still enjoy this pop-musical joy ride that it has successfully sought to be. RW

NANYANG, The Musical

Drama Centre Theatre

Opens 6 to 8 August 2015

A stirring performance capturing the spirit and passion of our pioneer artists, NANYANG, The Musical marks director Alec Tok’s return to the Singapore stage after 15 years spent making theatre abroad. This soulful production reunites award-winning lyricist Xiaohan and composer Eric Ng – the powerhouse songwriting team behind hit musicals such as “Liao Zhai Rocks” and “Lao Jiu”, who have also created career-defining hits for A-Mei, Sandy Lam, Stefanie Sun, Tanya Chua and more. Together, they create a musical soundscape of passion and wonder, all exquisitely arranged by Goh Kheng Long.

Ticket Pricing: $25 – $75

Web Link: NANYANG, The Musical

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