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[Review] Dim Sum Dollies – The History of Singapore Part 1

By Carolyn Fu

The Dim Sum Dollies return this year, reviving The History of Singapore Part 1 which enjoyed a hugely popular debut in 2007 (with Part 2 having a similarly successful run last year end.) The show made waves back then with its sociopolitical commentary draped in glitz and glamour, cementing the Dollies quite literally as the bedazzling jewels in our local arts crown.

As director Glen Goei describes, there really is no act in the world quite like the Dollies, who can switch among singing, dancing and acting as easily as breathing, all while provoking discussion about our Singaporean identity, and sporting glittering gold heels from start to finish.

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They pull out all the high-octane stops in this performance — from aerial suspension to fireworks — and we caught a glimpse of the impressive clockwork that goes on backstage to make this happen. There are almost 100 different costumes for this production alone, many of which are laid out strategically in the wings for the performers to step into in a matter of seconds. Witnessing the dedication of the crew backstage, such as hair designer Ashley Lim racing through its corridors, it is clear where the vivacity on stage draws its energy from.

Starting from Sang Nila Utama and stopping at independence, the Dollies present a series of historical vignettes, each taking a segment of history and wrapping it up in a musical number. The format of the humour comes primarily from setting historical issues in a present day context — such as piracy in the straits of the 1800s juxtaposed with modern day faked goods piracy, or brothels and gambling dens of yore paralleled with today’s Integrated Resorts.

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To bring the 2007 show into 2015, many of the cultural and sociopolitical references have been updated. They sneak in asides on the Little India riots, dysfunctional MRT trains, and write a whole new musical number for the hardworking Samsui women based off Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball. However, there were some elements which could have borne more reconsideration — the Integrated Resorts, or IRs, were a contentious issue in 2007 but not quite today, and the pun on “immortal-Lee” in the song number Luckily raised the hairs just a little in light of Lee’s passing.

Unfortunately, the drive to embed history in the present occasionally leads to the production being disjointed. The jokes leap forward in time before the set up in history is fully complete, such as where the arrival of the British jumps awkwardly to jabs at Sarong Party Girls in SIA-prints.

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Then there is the show’s episodic format, where each of the 11 historical segments has little to do with the last, adding to the sense of disjointedness. The song and dance numbers focus on sometimes all-too-random aspects of the past, where the sudden focus on Irish missionaries, with their disciplinary methods and river dance, is quite disorienting. Like Pam Oei’s character in the Samsui scene, many a time I catch no ball. It is through this that the production runs into one too many speed bumps, dissipating the energy and humour that has the potential to deliver so much more of a punch.

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The show’s pacing worked best when time was taken to tell a story, and when songs were used to further develop the narration rather than embellish it. The most effective segment personally was Sang Nila Utama’s, where it begins with his mother’s hilarious mandate for him to do something with his life, follows his maritime trials and tribulations with a sea shanty, then ends up with Oei’s delightfully bullish real estate agent making a dodgy pitch for the little red dot.

Thus despite the already-reputed singing and dancing prowess (on which Denise Tan must be commended for some truly powerhouse notes), the team’s strengths truly lie in things like Hossan Leong’s penchant for comedic timing or Selena Tan’s ability to turn on a dime from dramatic to deadpan — merits that certainly allow for more attention to narrative and storytelling.

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All the choice dim sum pieces are already there on the cart, and the Dollies can afford to make something even more delectable of them.

E V E NT   D E T A I L S

Dim Sum Dollies® The History of Singapore Part 1

Date: 5 – 21 June 2015
Time: Tue – Sat: 8pm, Sat & Sun: 3pm
Venue: Esplanade Theatre
Duration: 2 hours, including 20 min intermission
Tickets: $148, $128, $88, $68, $48 (through SISTIC)

Images credit: Dream Academy 

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