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Star-studded musical to celebrate Esplanade’s 10th year anniversary

Elizabeth Soh
Singapore Showbiz
8 October 2012

The National Broadway Company comes to the Esplanade (Photo courtesy of The Esplanade)
The National Broadway Company comes to the Esplanade (Photo courtesy of The Esplanade)

Did you grow up to the catchy ditties of "Beauty World, cha cha cha", or rush home every evening to tune into "Talentime"?

Have you laughed and cried your way through decades of watching Singapore's Dim Sum Dollies, catching Dick Lee in Fried Rice Paradise, or ogling at Najib Ali's crazy costumes on Asia Bagus?

If you did, you may want to head down to the Esplanade this weekend to relive those fun-filled memories.

In celebration of it's 10th Anniversary, Singapore's favourite "twin durians" is presenting "The National Broadway Company", or NBC, a star-studded production helmed by Beauty World director Ong Keng Sen featuring the country's favourite local musicals through the years.

Cultural medallion winner Ong's first mainstream musical production after 15 years, the NBC takes the stage in a Talentime competition format, some time in the near future.

The fictional "company" has just been established and is searching for an Artistic Director.

Enter the who's who of Singapore's theatre industry -- from hairdressers and entertainment icons to deputy public prosecutors, all competing for a chance for the position.

Audience members will have a ball of a time guessing who is who as the "contestants" belt their hearts out to hits from Beauty World, Chang and Eng, Haunted, Moral Sins, Forbidden City, and Fried Rice Paradise in the game-show format production "hosted" by Dick Lee.

Expect some never-seen-before interaction as those catching the show get to "vote" live and help decide who the next Artistic Director of NBC will be.

Also stepping into the shoes of Singapore's musical greats are Benjamin Kheng, who will play a young Dick Lee, Singapore idol finalist Tabitha Nauser as Jacintha Abisheganaden, and Erwin Shah Ismail as funnyman Najip Ali.

Yahoo! Singapore speaks to the three of them about what it was like stepping into the shoes of Singapore's most loved performance artistes and what to expect from the NBC this weekend.

Benjamin Kheng plays Dick Lee in the National Broadway Company (Photo courtesy of Benjamin Kheng and Dick Lee)
Benjamin Kheng plays Dick Lee in the National Broadway Company (Photo courtesy of Benjamin Kheng and Dick Lee)

Benjamin Kheng on being Dick

Channeling a young Dick Lee is the fresh-faced Benjamin Kheng, 21. The boyish-looking theatre diploma holder is no stranger to the local musical scene, having previously appeared in BOOM.

The full-time musician, who is resident guitarist of local indie band The Sam Willows, will be doing his best impersonation of Lee tinkling on the ivories.

"I went crazy! It's great, every actor or performer looks forward to roles like these, they don't come everyday in the local context," enthused Benjamin on the phone when asked how it felt when he received news that he would be playing Dick.

"To play a person who's so well known in a great honour."

Getting into character

Former national swimmer Benjamin says that he was given the role more for his "youthful energy" than for any physical similarities.

"I was cast because of my youth .. I've been getting involved in local music scene, just like Dick was then, and that's what we had in common - the youthful vibe of a young musician," he explained.

Although he had yet to meet Dick Lee personally at the time of the interview, he said that his biggest challenge would be to successfully translate the musician's charisma, warmth, and stage presence to the audience.

"He's really funny - very playful, but also very personable. Although he's singing to an audience of 2,500, it feels like you're in his living room. You feel very at home, very at ease," said Benjamin with obvious admiration.

Singapore Idol finalist Tabitha Nauser plays Jacintha Abisheganaden (Photo courtesy of Tabitha Nauser)
Singapore Idol finalist Tabitha Nauser plays Jacintha Abisheganaden (Photo courtesy of Tabitha Nauser)

For 20-year-old Singapore Idol finalist Tabitha Nauser, having a very "similar personality" to Jacintha Abisheganaden helped smooth her way into character.

"Some cast members have said that Jacintha and I are quite similar... which I think is great, because we get along very well and that helps me a lot in finding a way to portray her that still shows my personality," said Tabitha, who also performed for the Singapore Youth Olympics Games.

Still, she professes to have had a bad case of the nerves during initial rehearsals with Jacintha, who will be playing... well... herself.

"Going into it, I was really intimidated, but now...  I'm enjoying it a lot ! I've also had a lot of guidance on how I want to portray the role, and Jacintha seems to approve," said Nauser.

Local actor and La Salle graduate Erwin Shah Ismail, who plays wacky Asia Bagus host Najib Ali, drew inspiration from the comedian's "humility, spontaneity, and love for what he does."

"People see him as a new Malay, for me, I feel a similar sense as to the kind of Malay I am. Najib is very laidback, but very modest and humble, likeable quality about him I feel I should portray."

Local actor Erwin Shah Ismail plays funnyman Najib Ali (Photo courtesy of Erwin Shah Ismail and Music and Movement)
Local actor Erwin Shah Ismail plays funnyman Najib Ali (Photo courtesy of Erwin Shah Ismail and Music and Movement)

What to expect from the NBC

Those coming to watch Erwin Shah Ismail's interpretation of iconic Asia Bagus host Najip Ali will not be disappointed, at least sartorially.

"Two things -- iconic and different," he said cheekily.

"There will be one iconic item of his that you can immediately relate to Najib, but to see it, you'll have to come down and check it out!"

Benjamin, who has never watched Beauty World himself, feels that there will be "something for everyone, every demographic".

"Old timers, people who will find it nostalgic  but there's also something for the Y and Z generation -- it's a biopic, a look into Singapore, but also very fun, and very modern in it's concept," he said.

"There's a new vibe, and a sense of competitiveness."

All three said that there was amazing on-set chemistry despite the large cast.

"They were all very welcoming and accepting of new talent. We've become very close, chemistry backstage is incredible," said Benjamin.

"Leena (Salim) is always bringing in food, whole baskets of muffins, it really does feel like a family. Karen (Tan), who played Mummy in Beauty World, is also very motherly. It's a great feeling."

"It's very exciting. I consider myself a young emerging artiste constantly learning from the veterans, and Lim Yu Beng was my teacher in La Salle, to work with him again is so much fun and so much excitement," said Erwin Shah Ismail.

"We know each other well, it almost becomes play and fun in a very good way."

Watch the cast rehearsals and behind the scenes snippets for NBC below -

Tickets for The National Broadway Company are available via SISTIC or directly from the Esplanade's website and are priced between $28 and $68, with concessions for students and the elderly. It runs from 12-14 October.

For a look at the other shows the Esplanade has lined up for it's 10th Anniversary Weekend from 10-14th October, check out it's "Dedicated To You" programme here.

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