A dramatic portrait
Local singer and actress Cheryl Tan takes on the role of the fabled Dragon Lady in the musical Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress, writes Aref Omar
IF you’re into easy-listening live music, chances are you’ve heard her flexing her jazzy vocal chords in joints like No Black Tie or via her music collaborations, such as with fingerstyle guitarist Az Samad. Local English theatregoers would have caught some of her work as well. She even directed Nick Choo’s musical in 2015. But the petite 20-something from Melaka has been making a name for herself across the Causeway too.
Cheryl Tan has entertained children and families there in fairytale musicals for children, such as (2013), (2014) and (2015).
No stranger to dramatic period works, she’s starred in the musical, by Singaporean playwright Michael Chiang in 2015, set during the Lion City’s over-the-top cabaret scene of the swinging 1960s. Last year, she took on the titular role of the tragic heroine in Shakespeare’s as part of the Shakespeare In The Park series of outdoor productions. The busy lass had also made her TV debut this year on the new Channel 5 drama,
Tan, who appeared in her first play at age 15, graduated from Wesleyan University in the US after completing a double major in music and theatre. After completing a vocal teacher training course in New York, the talented artiste also started her own teaching studio, Voice KL, in 2015, both in Malaysia and Singapore.
Continuing her ongoing streak of creative expression, she is set to star in
which runs from Aug 8 to 27 in the island republic. Presented by the Singapore Repertory Theatre and Esplanade — Theatres on the Bay, the musical, written by playwright Dick Lee in 2002, is an epic production following three sold-out runs and over 100,000 tickets sold.
Below, Tan, the youngest daughter of a stockbroker and a teacher, talks about the upcoming show and what to expect from her in the near future.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER IN FORBIDDEN CITY: PORTRAIT OF AN EMPRESS.
The story is about Dowager Empress CiXi, who ruled China for about 50 years. It’s her journey from the concubine, Yehenara, to the powerful Empress Dowager — a fascinating journey of love, betrayal and power.
The role of the Empress is split between myself, (Singaporean singer and actress) Kit Chan and (Filipino stage star) Sheila Francisco, who has done this musical three times before.
We each portray the character at different stages of her life. I play her at her youngest, from her time as a concubine until she takes power. (The cast also includes West End and Broadway star Earl Carpenter, of
fame, and Broadway star Steffanie Leigh, from
WHAT WAS INTERESTING ABOUT THE CHARACTER YOU PLAYED?
There’s a very big, very sudden intense change to the character. She starts out being an obedient concubine, someone who is just in love. Just like in she learns how dangerous the world really is. And she has to change in order to survive.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN CHALLENGES YOU FACED?
I’m playing the role for the first half of the show and my appearances are impactful but sparse. They happen in these bursts, so there’s a lot of filling in that I have to do off stage. So that’s one of them. It’s also the first time someone other than Kit has sung the role, since the show has been mounted a few times before, so there’s quite a bit of pressure there.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT THIS MUSICAL AND YOUR ROLE THAT YOU THINK WILL RESONATE WITH THEATREGOERS IN THE REGION?
I think that it’s special that this is an Asian story told by Asian storytellers in a medium that is generally considered to be very Western. It connects us to a deeper history that we can all share.
WHY DID YOU GET INTO ACTING AND SINGING?
I was a lonely child, not very good at socialising for a very long time. I spent my childhood with books and stories all the time, even now. When I was sent to speech and drama classes as a child, something just clicked. I’ve explored a lot of other things as well, but when life brought me back to musical theatre, I felt like I was home again. I think it was always going to be this way.
WHAT OTHER PROJECTS DO YOU HAVE NEXT?
I’m directing something for Short + Sweet Theatre Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur but I’d love to break into the TV/film world in our country. I’ll also be the young romantic lead in
by W!LD Rice, opening in November in Singapore.
Next year onwards, I’ll be shifting my focus to screen work in both Singapore and Malaysia.
Tan enjoyed speech and drama classes as a child.