Review: Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress

The musical’s fourth staging dazzles with star power and an impressive set, though the landmark production could use an update.
Dwayne Tan as Emperor Kuang Hsu and Kit Chan as Yehenara
Dwayne Tan as Emperor Kuang Hsu and Kit Chan as Yehenara Photo: Singapore Repertory Theatre

Many have sung high praises of Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress, calling it one of, if not the, best musical productions in Singapore, even worthy of Broadway. Indeed, the 15-year-old production is spectacular, with modular Oriental screen doors that transform into multiple different settings, and lanterns that ‘float’ into the sky. However, the repetitive songs cause the play to drag, leaving viewers less than satisfied.

Forbidden City was commissioned in 2002 by the Esplanade for their opening festival. The behemoth of a production proved a raging success, selling out a 2000-seat theatre for three weeks. It was restaged twice more in 2003 and 2006, and has been brought back for the Esplanade’s 15th anniversary as the theatre’s most-requested production.

The set of Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress Photo: Singapore Repertory Theatre

The play is a period piece that offers a look into Empress Dowager Cixi’s life, suggesting that history might have been too harsh in portraying her as a cruel woman. The story is told to an American artist commissioned to paint Cixi’s portrait – who requests to know more about the Dragon Lady’s past so that she may paint the “real” Cixi. Over the course of the play, the Empress Dowager develops a close friendship with the artist, but comes to regret it at the end.

As the three headlining queens, Cheryl Tan, Kit Chan and Sheila Francisco were brilliant in their portrayals of the empress, known as Yehenara, in the three different stages of her life.

While Chan played the younger and middle-aged versions of the Empress Dowager in previous stagings, the roles were split in two this time, giving Tan a chance to shine as young Yehenara.

Cheryl Tan in Forbidden City Portrait of an Empress
Cheryl Tan as Young Yehenara Photo: Singapore Repertory Theatre

Tan’s tender voice embodied youth and naivety, endearing the audience to her throughout the first act. Chan reprised her role as middle-aged Yehenara and her powerful vocals contrasted with Tan’s, showing their differences in maturity. However, Chan’s portrayal left much to be desired. Her time on stage was, in the end, simply a demonstration of her singing abilities, with no compelling emotion.

Sheila Francisco as Empress Dowager painted her own portrait of a beautiful and emotional Yehenara in her old age, even in scenes where she had no lines. In a commendable display of Francisco’s stamina, she is present on stage for nearly the entire show as a silent observer of the flashbacks. When the time came for her to sing her last song, her half-cried rendition was heart-wrenching and charged with a level of emotion neither Tan nor Chan had been able to deliver in their earlier scenes.

Cheryl Tan, Kit Chan and Sheila Francisco Photo: Singapore Repertory Theatre

The musical also put young rising star Benjamin Chow (RENT) in the spotlight. As Prince Tun, he was the scheming brother-in-law playing the game of thrones. Unlike the three actresses who could focus on their assigned stage of Yehenara’s life, Chow had to portray the prince at every age. His voice aged with his character, along with his mannerisms and body language. The 27-year-old was so convincing in his role that one had to squint to make sure it was the same actor throughout the whole play.

As it is based on the artist Katherine Carl’s memoir about her interactions with Empress Dowager Cixi, the play is told from a Western perspective and does have an awkward flavour of Orientalism. Its Broadway star power certainly fits right in, with alums Earl Carpenter (Les Misérables) and Steffanie Leigh (Mary Poppins) opening the show and leading the audience into the Forbidden City. Carpenter plays George Morrison, a journalist who takes a liking to Leigh’s Kate Carl, the American artist painting the Empress Dowager’s portrait.

The two are seasoned thespians whose experience showed in their stage presence and delivery. However, their scenes were slow and the songs seemed repetitive – a problem which affected the rest of the cast.

Steffanie Leigh as Katherine Carl Photo: Singapore Repertory Theatre

For instance, three songs have reprisals, a second rendition in the later part of the musical. However, these individual renditions span up to two scene changes, which seems an excessive amount of time to devote to each one.

We get it, Yehenara, this is your only chance.

Perhaps Dick Lee could refresh the songs for the next restaging, maybe in 2020? With the way technology has altered our perception of information, this generation and future audiences will only become more easily bored. If the Dick Lee phenomenon is to endure into the Millennial™ era, cutting down on the repetition may help.

The musical received a standing ovation from many in the audience, but this writer remained seated. While the production certainly delivered what it had promised, it did not impress. Hopefully, the next restaging will be able to tell the story more efficiently.

Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress is showing at The Esplanade Theatre until Aug 27. Tickets are available from Sistic.