Education Medicine Music

The Magic Paintbrush: the Musical

The Magic Paintbrush: the Musical

Book, Lyrics and Artistic Director by Brian Seward

Music Composed by Kenneth Lyen

Music Arranger and Additional Music by Bang Wenfu

A week earlier, I tried to buy tickets online, and there were only six tickets left. However, I had something else to attend to, and so delayed buying my ticket by one hour. When I got round to buying the ticket, there was only one left, and no choice, I bought that last one. Sure enough, today’s performance was full house.

Throughout the performance, I heard shrieks of laughter, and children shouting to the cast telling them what to do, and misleading the villains by pointing them in the wrong direction. This impromptu interaction was fascinating for me to observe. Probably the best review one can get is what is overheard as one leaves the auditorium. Both adults and children were gushing: “Good, really really good!” “So funny!” “Must tell my friends to watch!” “Hilarious!” Those are some of the descriptions I overheard by the audience members, complete strangers to me.

All the elements came together in this musical. It resonated with the children. They saw the father scolding his stage daughter because she had fallen asleep instead of studying for her exams. And the children laughed. They saw the poor hungry peasant family trying to catch the chicken that had just been brought to life. And they laughed. They saw the villains Shrimp and Sotong getting lost, and undecided which direction to go. And they laughed. The laughter continued unabated right through the show.

A musical for children will only succeed if it speaks to the adults as well. Indeed the Magic Paintbrush does just that. It talks about excessive parental pressures on the kid’s academic studies, about greed for material wealth, about using one’s abilities to help others.

The Magic Paintbrush is based on an old Chinese folktale about a young boy, Ma Liang (Jodi Chan), who wants to paint, but is too poor to afford a paintbrush. He wishes for a paintbrush, and his wish is heard by The Spirit of Creation (Dwayne Tan) who sends Madam Hoang, a phoenix bird (Amanda Tee) to help. The Spirit of Creation then personally appears to deliver the paintbrush to Ma Liang, instructing him to use it wisely. This paintbrush is magic because it has the power to transform painted objects into 3-dimensional life forms.

Ma Liang’s first creation is a chicken (Ghazali Muzakir) who becomes attached to him, and follows him everywhere. Ma Liang helps the poor and hungry wherever he goes, by painting food for them to eat. However, his acts of altruism is witnessed by two hare-brained rogues, Shrimp (Darren Guo) and Sotong (Ebi Shankara). They inform the Emperor (Tan Shou Chen), who is obsessed with acquiring gold. They apprehend Ma Liang, and imprison him. Fortunately his faithful chicken finds Madam Hoang the phoenix, and with the help of a pie rat (Elizabeth Loh) residing in the prison, they rescue Ma Liang.

But their escape is thwarted by Shrimp and Sotong, who capture them all. The greedy Emperor orders Ma Liang to paint an ocean, a ship made of solid gold, and some wind to enable the ship to sail. However, Ma Liang paints wind that becomes increasingly stronger, eventually sinking the ship, together with the Emperor, Shrimp, and Sotong. Ma Liang continues to help the poor and needy.

Suddenly Ma Liang wakes up, and realizes it is all a dream. Or is it?

The actors are all triple threats, able to sing, act, and dance. They are excellent singers, capable of matching some of the best professional singers in major overseas centres. Their acting is also remarkable. You would not believe that there are only nine actors in total, most playing multiple roles. They convey the lyrics of the songs with perfect diction. My favorite three songs are “Reaching”, sung by Ma Liang:

                “Reaching for a shining star

                Working for a world so far

                Looking for a place to call

                My home at last.

                Striving for a heart that’s true

                Searching for the peace you knew

                Hoping for a future better than your past.”

And the song “Wisely, Wisely”, sung by the Old Man:

                “The spirit of each person   
                Holds a precious jewel   
                The joy of life and of love   
                The joy of kindness from above 
                Use it wisely, my child,   
                Use it wisely.   

                At the heart of every person 
                Lies a precious gift.   
                The gift of joy, or of song   
                The gift of knowing right from wrong 
                Use it wisely, my child,   
                Use it wisely.”

And “Wishing for a World”, sung by the Paintbrush

                “A wish can bring you joy

                A wish can bring you grief

                It all depends on the way you wish

                And what is in your heart


                Wishes are powerful

                Wishes are strong

                Beware the selfish wish that harms

                The wish that causes wrong”

The Magic Paintbrush is an entertaining, and at the same time, a profound thought-provoking musical. The credit for this goes to Brian Seward, who is both the writer as well as the director. The music arrangement and additional music are by Bang Wenfu. The music is brilliantly directed by Sara Wee. Cathy Kee choreographed the dances, and the movements flowed very smoothly. The sets are absolutely stunning, as are the props, the puppets, and the costumes. Sound and lighting were flawless.

May I congratulate everyone involved in this project. It is certainly a landmark in Singapore’s musical theatre. Bravo!

ACTOR                                                  CHARACTER

Jodi Chan                                             Toni Lee, Ma Liang

Tan Shou Chen                                  Father, Emperor

Amanda Tee                                      Mother, Madam Hoang (phoenix)

Ebi Shankara                                      Sotong

Darren Guo                                        Shrimp

Dwayne Tan                                       Paintbrush, Old Man

Elizabeth Loh                                     Peony Blossom, Pie Rat

Ghazali Muzakir                                Lotus Flower, Chicken

Daphne Ong                                       Villager, Puppeteer


Book, Lyrics, Director                       Brian Seward

Composer                                          Kenneth Lyen

Music Arranger, Additional Music  Bang Wenfu

Music Director                                Sara Wee

Choreographer                                Cathy Kee

Sets and Props                                Wai Yin Kwok

Puppets                                           Lisa Kelly

Lighting Designer                          Gabriel Chan

Flower Costumes                          Nakupelle

Costume Realization                    Joanne Ng Mui Huang


Production Manager                    Hatta Sulaiman

Stage Manager                            Alycia Finley

Asst Stage Managers                 Nadia Noordin, Nureen Raidah, Delia Oh Kheng Yee

Crew (intern)                              Nur Atikah

Sound Engineer/Operator           Sharizal Hamid

Lighting Ops                              Justina Khoo


Singapura: the musical

Singapura: the musical

Reviewed by Ken Lyen

2 June 2015

Maybe if I saw this show a few decades later, when memories of historical events have largely faded, where regional accents have merged into a nondescript form of global English, where style and pizazz are more important than character and plot development, I would rate Singapura a great show, aspiring to be Singapore’s Les Misérables. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed tonight’s performance immensely, but I will expound how I think it can be improved, below.

Singapura: the musical focuses on one family and how they are affected by the sweep of Singapore’s history from the 1955 Hock Lee bus riots, through Indonesian confrontation, the racial riots, and ending with Singapore expulsion from Malaysia in 1965.

The main strengths of this musical are the songs, the cast, the back projection and the moveable sets.

The majority of the cast are from the Philippines. The Filipino accent was largely subdued and I was not bothered by it. Juliene Mendoza played the role of the father, and his strong voice and acting abilities carried the role brilliantly. Maybelle Ti played his wife, mother to Lee May, who was played by Marian Santiago. Lee May’s British boyfriend, Flynn, was played by David Bianco. The highlight of the musical is the powerful love duet “Be With Me” between Lee May and Flynn. Raymund Concepcion played the Man in White, ostensibly Lee Kuan Yew. He is a commanding figure with a sonorous voice to match. Comic relief is provided by Noel Rayos playing the Indian, and Onyl Torres playing the Malay character.

Ed Gatchalian composed, arranged, and directed the music. For me, music is an essential component of a musical, and in this regard, the music can be highly commended. It is strident during the turbulent scenes, it is romantic during the courting scenes, sad when the mother dies, and triumphant at the finale. The songs are catchy and well arranged.

Driscoll Otto’s back projection demonstrates how photos and illustrations can greatly enhance the scenes and replace expensive sets. It is a definite wow factor.

David Permana conducted the orchestra and accompanied the singers faultlessly.

What could have been improved? The first half felt too long. The musical started off by placing too much emphasis on the history of Singapore rather than developing the individual characters. To some extent this was obviated in the second half. I did not like any of the university law lecturer’s scenes, and would have preferred to have all these scenes deleted. The over-emphasis on the role of the British after they had granted independence to Singapore overshadowed other historical elements. The lack of a satisfactory conclusion between Lee May and her British lover Flynn left me a bit confused. The father’s fears of the perils of Singapore are understandable, but his wish to emigrate to a utopian Malacca portrayed him as bit of a coward. To overcome this negative portrayal, I think his character arc needs more careful development: instead of running away from his problems, time needs to be taken to show how he confronts them.  I would have liked to have seen the character playing Lee Kuan Yew to pay a visit to the kopitiam, take a drink, and have a brief conversation with the father. Finally, being a musical set in Singapore, I think more sprinkling of local languages and Singlish would enhance its authenticity.

So ultimately, we come back to the subject matter of the musical. If it is about Singapore, then it falls short. Hence the low score given below. Sorry.

Yes, I enjoyed the musical. And I would like to congratulate the creative team, the cast, the orchestra, and everyone involved in this musical for their magnificent effort!

1.5/5 stars

Makan Place


Makan Place
The Musical
Reviewed by Kenneth Lyen

Book by R Chandran
Music and Lyrics by Saedah Samat-Alkaff & Jasmin Samat Simon
Additional music by Varian Lim, Jerome Quek and Eugene Ryan Chionh

Makan Place is a musical staged at the Republic Polytechnic Cultural Centre from 27th to 31st October 2012. It has the distinction of being the first original Singapore musical, and was staged in 1988. Apart from a few minor changes, this revival is quite faithful to the 1988 production.


The story is set in a hawker center in the 1980s where we see six food and drink stalls. It focuses on two teenagers, Siew and Zil. Siew (Nicholas Chin) is the son of Leng (Sharon Tan), the hawker selling Chinese fishball mee. She owes loanshark Kung (David Roy Quake) some $600, and manages to persuade him to allow her two more weeks to repay her debts.


Siew’s good friend is Zil (Lim Teck Kiang), the son of Pakcik (Thng Poh Huat), who runs the mee rebus stall. Zil aspires to be an entertainer and one of the customers, Yin Mei (Geneva Xu), helps set up a show audition for him. Unfortunately Zil’s father, Pakcik, collapses unexpectedly from an unknown illness, necessitating emergency admission to hospital. As Zil has to look after the mee rebus stall while his father is away, he misses the audition.

Siew receives regular tuition from Judy (Emma Dzalin), a tuition teacher who is only slightly older than him. But Siew wants to stop the tuition, as well as leaving school to start work, in order to help his mother repay the loansharks. Siew tells Zil that he is infatuated with Judy, but when she brings her boyfriend to eat at the hawker centre, he gets upset when the boyfriend insults Judy, and challenges him to a fight.

Some of the minor characters are quite hilarious. The tourist (Lee Yao Hui) who is exploited by being charged exorbitant prices for his meal; the environment inspector (Divitra Sukumaran) who fines one of the hawkers for littering; the impatient customer Tom (Goh Jun Jie) who complains about the slowness of his food; the celebrity Dezel (Liya Alisya) who gets a free drink when she signs her autograph for Rahim (Hafidz Abdullah); the blind woman (Davinia He) and her companion (David Roy Quake) who prey on the customers selling their wares; the group of schoolgirls making advances to a group of schoolboys.

The resolution of the main plotlines all lead to happy conclusions. Siew studies without the help of tuition and does well in his exams, Zil has a second chance auditioning and wins the role, his father recovers from the illness. When the loan sharks reappear demanding payment of the loan, Siew’s mother Leng can only muster up $450. The loan sharks threaten to close her stall, but the other members of the hawker centre combine to come up with the remaining $150 to pay the loan sharks.


Makan Place is a very enjoyable musical, with hummable songs and throbbing dance music. Congratulations to Saedah Samat-Alkaff and Jasmin Samat Simon for their songs.


The strengths of this production are the well-choreographed exciting synchronous dancing, especially the rat sequences and the fight scenes. The well-rehearsed orchestra supports the singers closely. The sets and costumes are simple but appropriate. This is an ensemble cast, and the singing by the lead performers is especially good.


I hope that Makan Place will be restaged in the not too distant future. My suggestion is that the story should be updated for the 21st century. The character arc of the leads can be better mapped, and the resolution can converge a bit better towards the end.


Congratulations to everybody involved in this fine production.


Kenneth Lyen

31 October 2012 

Rehearsal video:



Book by R Chandran 
Music and Lyrics by Saedah Samat-Alkaff & Jasmin Samat Simon 
Additional music by Varian Lim, Jerome Quek and Eugene Ryan Chionh 
Music arranged by Saedah Samat-Alkaff, Varian Lim, Iqbal Jumaat, Ao Cheng Su, & Kevin Woo 
Executive producer: Ganesh Kalyanam 
Producer & production manager: Yap Pei Ying 
Director: Jeffrey Tan 
Choreographer: Zaini Tahir 
Music director: Varian Lim 
Vocal director: Irene Jansen 
Technical and lighting director: Tony Kam 
Audio designer: Mark Spencer 
Stage Manager: Shivvani Jegatheesan 


Firefly in the Light

Firefly in the Light

Book, Lyrics, and Music by Shayna Toh

Reviewed by Kenneth Lyen

We have just witnessed the launch of a brilliant Singapore writer of musical theatre, destined to become an international sensation. Shayna Toh, a 17-year-old student, wrote the book, lyrics and music to the musical “Firefly in the Light”. It was performed in the Chamber at the Arts House on 15 November 2014 to a full house.

Even Andrew Lloyd Webber, who wrote his first musical, “The Likes of Us” at the age of 17, only composed the music, and this work did not receive its first public performance until 40 years later. Lloyd Webber’s second musical, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” was not written until he was 20 years old. But let’s not quibble over a few years here and there.

SYNOPSIS (Spoiler Alert)

Firefly in the Light” is about Wendy, a 17-year-old student, who met up with a childhood friend, Jake. A flashback scene showed that they were previously in love with one another. However, the latter had suddenly disappeared for 4 years without communicating with Wendy. He explained that he was studying overseas, but had now returned to rekindle his relationship with her. In the intervening 4 years, Wendy seemed to have lost interest in Jake. We learn that Wendy’s father had left the family many years ago and was an entertainment producer or manager in Hollywood. Wendy wanted to join her father because she was drawn by the bright lights and spell of tinseltown, much like a firefly. However, Wendy’s mother informed her that father was a bad person, and absolutely refused to allow her to go. Mother and daughter argued, and this pushed Wendy into a decision to join her father. Jake and her school friends tried to dissuade her but she stubbornly refused to listen.

The second act shows what a monstrous person her father was. He ran a sleazy night-club, and treated his glamor girls brutally. He did the same with Wendy, and did not even allow her to further her career by auditioning for other shows. She was trapped in a situation she could not escape. She sank into depression. At this point, Jake showed up unexpectedly, saying he had been looking for her for several years. Seeing Wendy in an appalling state, he invited her to watch him perform in a show nearby, and to meet his own agent. Unfortunately, father found out about her plans to leave his establishment, and he lashed out at her violently. In self-defense, she accidentally killed him. The final scene depicts Jake who was singing a song he had written specially for Wendy. While Wendy was alone on the floor shaking hysterically.


Overall “Firefly in the Light” is a most enjoyable musical with a compelling story, good direction by Tabitha Loh, and a strong cast.

The best part of “Firefly in the Light” is the music. There are a total of 12 songs, of which 2 are reprises. The style ranges from lyrical solo ballads, to danceable pop rock, and to dissonant conflict songs delivered by multiple singers. The composer is also the pianist, and is accompanied by an accomplished small instrumental ensemble.

The lyrics are well written and convey the message clearly. The dialogue is natural and carries the story in a compelling manner.

Overall, the performers were excellent, and they all have strong pitch-perfect voices. More than half the cast are graduates from LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore. Special mention must be made of the leads. Rachel Tay, who plays the role of Wendy, conveys the rebellious teenager who descends into cynical distrust, with aplomb. Jake, Wendy’s childhood friend, is played by Linden Furnell, who also depicts a hesitant boyfriend, unsure of how to express is deep-felt feelings. The rest of the cast have to play more than one role. Chia DeZhong plays the cruel despotic father very convincingly.


What reservations do I have? I have expressed them within the following wishes.

I wish I could chose the ending. Perhaps a method to allow the audience vote for either a happy or a sad ending would take away the abruptness of the current ending.

If such an audience choice was not available, I wish the musical was book-ended by a prologue and an epilogue. This would cushion the overly hasty ending.

I wish that Wendy and Jake’s renewed romance was a more developed as this would heighten the subsequent tension.

I wish that Jake had foreshadowed his desire to become a career singer-songwriter more clearly. The current transition of Jake from a dreamy indecisive poetry-reading academic into a Hollywood entertainer, is not quite believable.

I wish that the parents were not such cardboard one-dimensional characters, and that they showed a glimpse of a kinder maternal and paternal instinct.

I felt the parents needed to have a slanging-match song leading to their separation.

The fellow students only appeared in the first half, and I felt that there were too many. Just one close confidant to Wendy was all that it needed, and so this character could be developed to contrast with Wendy’s character.

Singapore does not have a tradition comparable to the USA, where shows could be tried out in a smaller city before transferring it to Broadway. The performance at the Arts House to a small audience seemed to serve as that sort of try-out.

"Firefly in the Light" was a delight to watch, and for a debut musical, it is absolutely remarkable. I am sure that Shayna will be responsible for many future great Singapore musicals. Congratulations!



Music, lyrics, and book: Shayna Toh.


Rachel Tay, Linden Furnell, Sri Widati Ernawan Putri, Chia DeZhong, Ivan Chan, Siti Maznah, Stephanie Phang.


Direction: Tabitha Loh. Choreography: Siti Maznah. Fight Choreography: Ivan Chan.


Lighting: Nigel Pereira, Jack Lim. Set: Tan Ty. Costumes: Irwanni bin Kusnin, Johan Efraimsson. Sound: George Leong.


Piano: Shayna Toh. Bass Guitar: Chia Chong Yue. Violin: Esther Jan. Drums: Johan Efraimsson. Guitar: Sures Ravindran.


Music: John Sharpley. Vocal Coach: Akiko Otao. Dramaturg: Sonny Lim.

(Reviewed on 16 November 2014)








But Now We See

But Now We See

Reviewed by Kenneth Lyen


Raffles Hall Musical Production's "But Now We See" burst upon the University Cultural Centre stage on Saturday 18th October 2014. 

What are the objectives of staging an original musical? If it is to stimulate creativity, uncover hidden talent, foster teamwork, camaraderie and leadership, then last night's Raffles Hall musical, "But Now We See" succeeds admirably. It is exciting to watch so many talented individuals working together to produce a polished well-rehearsed highly original musical. 

Musical theatre is probably the most demanding team art form. It embraces many disparate elements, each a complete art form in itself. For example, it encompasses story-telling, playwriting, acting, singing, dancing, choreography, set design, costume design, lighting, sound design, program booklet writing, marketing, publicity, fund-raising, etc. Each and every element must work together to form a cohesive whole. When that happen, a musical can reach for the stars. Unfortunately, if any one of its major components fails, it can sometimes drag the entire work down.

I have often suffered the barbs of innumerable critics, so I know what it feels like to be at the receiving end of criticisms. It is inevitable that the most hypersensitive person is the one who is being written about. So before I dwell on what I perceive to be areas that can be improved upon, let me tell you what I like about "But Now We See".

The overall performance was excellent. The producers, Tan Zhen Wei, Chan Jane Vin and Lek Chin Meng, had assembled a wonderful and cohesive team. This is no mean feat, considering the massive scale of this production. The directors, Abel Siow, Michelle Koh and Prashanth Prakash, did an admirable job interpreting the complicated script, and the final scene where the shepherd is told of her ward Thebeson's death is particularly moving. The sets were well-designed and appropriate to the story, and kudos goes to Gavin Prasetyo Raharjo and Sherin Koh Hsin Yi. The costumes were excellent, and they were led by Fung Wing Sang and Wan Kai Mi. 

The music was composed by “Dare” Darryl Lim and Tan Choong Hou. It captures the overall mood and emotions of the show very well. This was helped enormously by the arrangers Karlius Quek, Eveline Patricia Kartawijaya, Marius Andrian Tjandrawinarto, and Eyu Xue Yi. The orchestra was another phenomenal showpiece of the musical. The choral directors also created an expressive atmosphere, thanks to Ng Kai Jun, Sherman Yuen Sheung Man and Cheng Zhi Yuan. Dance was a major component of this musical, and was imaginatively-choreographed by Shalom Lau Li Yin, Nicholas Wong, and Li Wei Neng.

The cast portrayed the characters well, and I was impressed by their singing and acting. They included Kevan Png Yeow Wei, Tan Yilong, Bernice Leow Li Hsia, Teo Hwee Sze, Jesline Tang Chia Ling, Tay Yu Rong, and Lee Jia Sheng. They are indeed the stars of the show. 

Are there any criticisms about the show? Let me preface my remarks by talking more generally.

Story-telling is one of the major elements of a musical. "But what about Cats?" you might ask. Sure, Andrew Lloyd Webber's “Cats” has an almost non-existent storyline. However, the other components are so brilliant that they compensate for the miserable non-story. The dancing, the music, and the set design are so stunning, that you walk out of the theatre feeling… well… great.

It has often been said that a musical should only have one major theme that runs right throughout. If it is too complex, the audience is easily lost. Complexity is not a virtue in musical theatre. Simplicity is.

I’m sorry to say that I did not quite follow all the intricacies of the plot.

However, overall, I think that this musical has several plus points. It is highly original. It evokes an even darker rendition of a Harry Potter’s Hogwarts School. It is well produced and performed. The organization, the teamwork, and the friendships forged, are all to be complimented. The final scenes at the end of the musical are very touching and one almost felt like crying.

So congratulations to Raffles Hall for another fantastic musical!

I look forward to seeing your next production!

Kenneth Lyen

19 Oct 2014