My colleagues stared at me, mouths agape when I told them I’d never watched Forbidden City before. At the time, I didn’t see what the big deal was, but after catching the production over the weekend, I understood their surprise. I’d never been a big fan of musicals, but since being with my fiancé, they’ve come to grow on me. I’ve caught a few this year, but I have to say, Forbidden City has been one of the more impactful ones.

As I sat in my seat, waiting for curtains, I realised that the set looked unexpectedly bare. Wasn’t this supposed to be some sort of grandiose performance? Just as I was thinking that to myself, the orchestra began playing an epic introduction piece, and a giant portrait of the Empress Dowager Cixi came into view from behind curtains. It was a magnificent opening theme, and it set the tone for the rest of the musical.

This iteration of the production, like its predecessors, follows the struggles of the empress, unseen by her subjects and the rest of her world. She is portrayed by three stellar performers in Cheryl Tan (the young concubine Yehenara), Kit Chan (the middle-aged Empress), and Sheila Francisco (the Empress Dowager). All three actresses were phenomenal in their own right, with Chan filling the entire arena with her stunning voice and Francisco commanding the authority as befits a Dragon Lady, but it was Tan that impressed me the most.

Her portrayal showed that she was not to be overlooked just because she was the youngest and least experienced of the three actresses. She embraced Yehenara’s youthful vulnerability, wide-eyed optimism, and budding defiance perfectly, ensuring that the audience never forget for one moment, that the empress was but a child when the tragic events took place.

The music, written by Dick Lee, is as spectacular as you’d expect it to be. So spectacular, in fact, that this stranger on my right was singing along during a few numbers. What surprised me the most, however, was the set design – ironic considering I thought it looked bare at the start of the show. Designed by Francis O’Connor, the flexible sets transform in a matter of seconds to depict various settings, from palaces to brothels.

It’s easy to see why Forbidden City – Portrait of an Empress is Singapore’s most successful original musical to date. Stellar performances from both cast and crew make it a unique and worthwhile experience for the audience. If you haven’t caught it before, I suggest you do. If you’ve watched previous iterations, it may be worth checking this one out too because it will be Kit Chan’s last musical as the empress.

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