You might have heard of Cheryl Tan if you’ve been an ardent follower of the local theatre and live music scene. Now 28, and alternately based in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, Tan is starring in Singapore Repertory Theatre’s Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress, which was first commissioned by the Esplanade and produced for its opening in 2002. The musical went on to become one of the most successful made-in-Singapore musicals produced with over 100,000 tickets sold.
The show is about Empress Dowager CiXi, of the Manchu Yehenara clan, who ruled China for nearly 50 years right at the end of the Qing dynasty, and just before China stopped being a monarchy.
“The role of the Empress is played by three actresses at different stages of her life and I play her at the youngest stage (Yehenara),” Tan shares in an email interview.
Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress is currently showing at the Esplanade in Singapore until Aug 27.
“This is definitely a great experience for me. Last year I played Juliet (in Romeo & Juliet) for Singapore Repertory Theatre’s Shakespeare in the Park and it was this amazing, huge outdoor space … this time it’s the Esplanade Theatre which is a super beautiful, and a very famous theatre.”
Tan says that she’s always wanted to perform at the Esplanade, and she’s glad that her “first time” is set to be with such a great role.
“It’s also wonderful that this show was originally the first musical to ever be played on that stage; so it’s a sort of homecoming for the show.”
Tan’s body of work includes playing the lead role of Ivy Chan in the musical Beauty World, and Swee Choo in the short film Parting by Boo Junfeng a couple of years ago.
She’s only just begun to explore the world of television, having worked in music and theatre from a young age. Most recently she made her TV debut as Sylvia Soo in the Mediacorp 20-part series The Faculty.
“My parents are from Melaka,” she shares. “But I grew up in Kuala Lumpur. I was enrolled in Helen O’Grady’s Speech and Drama Academy as a child, and attended Sri Cempaka (now Cempaka International School), where I was given a lot of opportunities to act and sing.”
Tan remembers being forced, like many others, to learn piano as a child.
“I frustrated so many teachers that my parents gave up after a while! I went back and did my Grades 5 and 8 as a teenager, and of course it was easier when I had chosen to do it,” she says, adding that she joined the local choir outfit Young KL Singers when she was 14, and started getting outside exposure from there on.
“My professional debut was at age 15, and I acted in and out of school throughout the rest of my SPM years.”
In 2004, Tan shared the title role of Gardner and Wife’s Little Violet And The Angel with Inessa Irdayanty.
“Little Violet was a really exciting experience for me. I got to work with Mano Maniam, Joanna Bessey and Sandra Sodhy, and I loved every minute of it. Sometimes, theatre folks in KL still mention it to me, which means it was quite special for them too!”
After graduating with a double major in Music and Theatre from Wesleyan University in 2011, Tan lived in Brooklyn for a year where she pursued playing taiko (Japanese drums) and working at a jazz venue. She then returned to Malaysia, where she spent about a year and a half doing almost exclusively jazz in KL.
“I worked with John Thomas, Michael Veerapen, Mokhtar Samba and a host of other amazing musicians,” she adds, sadly noting that once she started working in Singapore, a lot of that was dialled down because the jazz scene there, in Tan’s words, is just not as vibrant.
“The musicians are fantastic but there’s no public demand,” she offers.
So is she more actress than musician/singer these days?
“I’d say that I’m an actor (who sings) first, a teacher second and a jazz vocalist last these days.”
Tan feels that all different art forms feed one’s soul in different ways, and that she has tried to do all of them as much as she could so as not to get jaded.
“The entertainment industry is also generally such that you must diversify your skill set whenever you can,” she says. “That said, musical theatre was definitely my first love growing up.”
How did she end up in Singapore?
“When I was doing jazz in KL, I was headhunted to audition for a film in Singapore. The movie eventually got put on hold, but the director told me that she thought I should be working here. So I just started auditioning, and I quickly landed my first lead and it’s just grown since then.
“I don’t live in Singapore long-term but I’d say I spend most of my time there, and the main body of my work is there. I’d love to start working in TV and film in Malaysia, though.”
But for now, it’s Yehenara’s robes that she will don until Aug 27.
In Forbidden City, Tan is joined by a cast of international and Singapore stars, including Kit Chan, Sebastian Tan, Benjamin Chow, West End’s Earl Carpenter and Broadway star Steffanie Leigh.
The musical – directed by Steven Dexter – has all the ingredients of a true epic, with a young concubine in love, a dying Emperor, a heartless traitor, an idealistic artist and an Empire that stands to fall.
Told through the eyes of Kate Carl who is commissioned to paint the Empress’s portrait, the musical recounts Cixi’s trials and tribulations from ingenious concubine to ruthless ruler.
Tan says: “The role itself is quite demanding emotionally, there is a big journey that I have to go through from being a young woman wanting the love of a man, to a mother who has to fight for her own survival, as well as that of her son.
“To do this Cixi had to learn to navigate political spheres and learn a lot of difficult lessons about life and the world. It’s like Game Of Thrones, really!”
Catch the young chanteuse in action as she brings to life the glorious Dick Lee/Stephen Clark songs including Starting With The Eyes, My Only Chance, I Need Him and Summer Palace.
Forbidden City: Portrait Of An Empress is playing at the Esplanade in Singapore till Aug 27. Tickets are available through www.sistic.com.sg. More information: www.esplanade.com/forbiddencity.