Theatre review: Forever Young
Not just a laughing matter
"Do not fear death, but rather the unlived life," wrote American author Natalie Babbitt in her children's novel, Tuck Everlasting. "You don't have to live forever. You just have to live." After two hours cackling along to the antics of the elderly characters in Sing'Theatre's newest production, Forever Young, you wouldn't mind growing old with such spirits who have definitely defined what it means to pursue a lived life. Adapting Swiss playwright Erik Gedeon's 2007 musical comedy about a group of retired actors in a nursing home, Benjamin Lee has written in local references to attitudes and lingo in the script.
Set in 2067, we're introduced to seven characters in a pastel-hued set by designer Wong Chee Wai. Hossan Leong (who also directs), Tan Kheng Hua, Karen Tan, Suhaimi Yusof, Ebi Shankara and Julian Wong play the aged, while Candice De Rozario is Sister Sara who's responsible for their well-being. At the get-go, you're already appreciative of the diversity Sing'Theatre has attempted in their casting: Not only are the actors revered comics in both film, television and stage, their styles range from deadpan delights to pure, slapstick fun.
To prepare for their roles, the actors spent time with the Lions Befrienders Service Association, and it showed in their physicalities. Resident pianist and guitarist Wong heightened notes when necessary as each introduction of a character comes alive with a quirk or deficiency: Karen Tan's grump apparently suffers from Parkinson's or severe joint paints, Suhaimi's 'mat rocker' persona is crippled by his use of a walking aid while Tan Kheng Hua's endearing (if not annoying) antics hint at an early onset of dementia.
A frequent collaborator with Sing'Theatre (he's worked on A Singaporean in Paris, A French Kiss in Singapore and No Regrets), Leong directs a cast that has comedic timing running through their veins, with exaggerations that were more of a tribute to the aged rather than a disrespectful caricature. An underlying theme of hope is what anchors the production, with hits from the '80s, '90s and present day bringing their characters to life. Musical director Elaine Chan and choreographer Seong Hui Xuan know which tune fits a performer best, prescribing 'Uptown Funk' to Suhaimi, who shows off moves you wouldn't normally expect from the comic — step aside, Bruno Mars. Musically talented in their own right, numbers such as One Direction's 'Story of My Life', Eurythmics' 'Sweet Dreams' and Aqua's 'Barbie Girl' are performed in solos and harmonies.
While the Singlish phrases and jokes were lost to some foreign members of the audience, they were a treat to those who understood, notably at the use of Hokkien and Malay clap-backs. But Forever Young isn't all fun and games. Tan Kheng Hua's retired thespian diva showed off a delicate vulnerability as and when reality reminded of her age, while Sister Sara's disregard for the aged's rich, internal selves resonated with members of the audience who've seen this script played out in real life. It's not until Fun.'s 'We Are Young' and Alphaville's 'Forever Young' are belted out when the messages really hit you, hard.
A well-staged production will always leave you reflecting. In Forever Young, we've been steered to cast another look at how our society has treated the aged — the generation who no longer walks the walk and talks the talk like they used to. Opening a social dialogue about the state of elderly care in Singapore and the lives that possibly still live on inside us despite our age, the musical comedy is heartwarming as it is hilarious — a karaoke session you never knew you needed.
Till 21 October at the SOTA Drama Theatre. Book here.