The play Georgette begins with this question – appropriate enough for a woman whose early life is relatively unknown. Georgette Chen is mainly known as a pioneering Singaporean artist and one of the few women of that time. As a result, it is Georgette Chen’s arrival at Singapore customs that has captured the attention of heritage boards and historians, examining her impact on the Singapore art scene and her role in Singapore history. If there is a mention of her pre-Singapore activities, it is contained in the following words – born, married, studied, left.
Part of these lacunae is due to resources, rather than the understandable desire to cast a nationalistic cloak on Georgette. Georgette’s Singapore life is well-documented – simply because she was here. By contrast, records of her earlier life lie scattered across three continents, and in all likelihood, gone.
All is left is the question that the play tries to answer - who is Georgette Chen? Throughout the play, her portrait hangs, enigmatic as the Mona Lisa herself.
A narrator begins the musical, introducing us to the mystery of Georgette Chen. From there, the story proper begins at a customs checkpoint in Paris. Georgette Chen is still the bright eyed Chang Liying, and as the customs officer asks for the purpose of her visit, she declares confidently, “To be an artist!”
That customs checkpoint is a leitmotiv of sorts, in Georgette’s life. For the rest of the musical, Georgette bounces from continent to continent, crossing customs and cultures, with a family reunion in China, an art exhibition in New York, a stopover in Malaya. Georgette was a cosmopolitan woman, an enthusiastic traveller, and always in movement.
The sheer energy of the musical brings across this multiplicity of experiences that infused Georgette’s early life. A Moulin Rouge-sque hokey number introduces as to the La Bohemia that is Toulouse-Latrec’s Paris. An awkward family dinner, where modernity clashes with traditional customs, emphasises Georgette’s status of standing between worlds. A completely unnecessary Caribbean-influenced jingle jarrs, but otherwise the music is perfectly serviceable, tapping into common musical genres.
In certain ways this is not so much a musical about Georgette, but about Georgette’s world. By examining the world she lives in, the playwright Ng Yi-Sheng deliberately, or otherwise, compels us to understand the forces that were potentially shaping her worldview. Georgette herself as portrayed in this musical is oddly uncomplicated - she is a fairly standard literary character, that of a rebellious young artist, with a great love that forms her anchor. By focusing on her world, Ng escapes certain problems of having to recreate Georgette with the little textual evidence available, but instead draws on what is commonly known about the greater world to let the audience fill in the blanks themselves.
This has the potential to turn into a messy pastiche, if not for Eugene, Georgette Chen’s first husband and the great love of her life. The strength of their marriage and their mutual affection has been documented in the form of Georgette’s numerous sketches of her diplomat husband. The essence of their relationship plays out across several continents and in a particularly charming song by the narrator. The strength of their marriage sings out bright and clear, despite career paths that sent them in different directions – Georgette in New York for an exhibition, Eugene in Australia for peace talks, and a hopeful rendezvous in Malaya. Here, too, the most unusual aspect of Georgette Chen is illustrated; a powerfully independent career woman, confident of her love and lover.
The story of their love forms the overarching narrative for the early portion of Georgette’s life, framing and punctuating the story being told. A chapter of Georgette’s story ends with Eugene’s death, and she arrives on at a Singapore customs point, much as she began, waiting to paint a new life.
That being said, something more complex than a usual “rich girl bucking against society” would have been interesting. Georgette was unconventional for her time, but unconventionality is getting, well, rather conventional when it comes to historical figures. If only the historical sources had allowed a deeper look into her thoughts on art and representation, which might have given a sense of Georgette’s importance in Singapore art history, other than being unconventional. As it is, the uninformed viewer is left slightly puzzled as to what all the fuss is about this “woman on the wall”.
But for all this faults, Georgette wins on sheer charm, thanks to Ng Yi-Sheng’s deft handling of multiple genres and the English language.
So who is the woman on the wall? The question is repeated at the end, with the chorus in front of easels, Georgette’s portrait watching overhead. Judging by the musical, Georgette could be anything you wanted her to be – devoted lover, independent traveller, patient daughter, and of course, an artist. Now, if only there was a sequel.
Ng Yi-Sheng is a playwright, performance artist, and free-lance writer. Other works include 251 (the Annabel Chong story) and the book SQ21, profiling Singaporean homosexuals. He also has a completed play called The Last Temptation of Raffles, which has been read, but not performed. The reviewer strongly approved of the play, and hints broadly that it’s looking for a sponsor.
Georgette is a musical based on the life of Georgette Chen, a pioneer Singapore artist. It opens with a young Georgette, fresh-faced with the eagerness of all her 20 years, arriving in Paris in 1927 where her extraordinary story begins.
We are shown her interactions: with a Chinese waiter who accuses her of not being Chinese after she speaks French to help settle an argument between a Parisian couple in a café; with her parents who think that painting is a dalliance and she would eventually channel her energies towards maintaining the aristocratic status of her family; and between herself and Eugene Chen, who was then the Chinese foreign minister and her future husband.
This is Musical Theatre Limited’s Georgette: the musical, featuring the life of unconventional - for her time - artist Georgette Chen, who eventually moved to Singapore and made her mark as a painter and art teacher here. This reviewer was expecting more about Georgette’s life in Singapore where she arrived at the age of 46 in 1953, but the story focuses on her life during her younger, formative years instead.
The first half sets the tone, by centring on the relationship between Georgette and Eugene. Like the protagonist and her life, it is an unconventional pairing. Eugene is an ethnic Chinese who comes from Trinidad in the Caribbean, now in political office in one of the world’s largest and tumultuous countries. He is twice Georgette’s age, and is reserved in his behavior. In contrast, Georgette comes from an affluent background but is a fiercely independent woman. Their love would prove crucial in the second half, where they draw greater strength from one another, especially when they are captured by the Japanese in Shanghai during the second world war.
Georgette is staged within the growing milieu of no-frills, relatively short (one and a half hours with a 15-minute interval) musicals in a venue that does not give many options in terms of special lighting or visual effects.
There is, however, a charming simplicity in the lyrics and acting, props and backdrop. The props are mostly boxes and a number of artists’ pallets. There is also a projector screen featuring Georgette’s paintings and other images in key scenes essential to her story, and helps flesh out the story without the need large-scale sets. An on-stage wardrobe of costume suitcases and a clothes rack further characterises this.
One suspects that anything else would detract from the writer Ng Yi Sheng’s script. His presentation of Georgette mirrors the inspiration he finds in her work, which he describes as "paintings in delicate, tender pastels done with love". The paintings she created is a blend of east and west, a style wholly her own. This is reflected in her own life, which is periodically emphasised throughout the show.
The use of a narrator (Lena Lim) from the beginning helps anchor the story, but it is Georgette (Seong Hui Xuan) herself who provides the true moorings with energy and pathos. Seong, incidentally, bears an intriguing resemblance to the one whose life she portrays. The audience sees this for themselves beginning from scene one, via a self-portrait projected onto the screen on the stage wall.
The dialogue is sharp enough to avoid the pitfalls of bombastic wordplay or convoluted structures and sentences; they serve to bring out the characters and the acting, not the other way around. Like Seong, Eu Jin Hwang uses this to good effect and played Eugene Chen with much gravitas.
Paradoxically the lyrics are largely playful and humorous but this belies the serious undertones. Notable is the family dinner scene where our protagonist, petulant, blurts out her intention to marry Eugene. Western European and Chinese customs also blend and clash, as the characters remind us when they chant-sing "don’t cross your chopsticks" in between a conversation where an unhappy Mr Zhang’s questions the non-traditional way in which his daughter and Eugene are engaged to marry.
Still, kudos should go to composer Clement Yang, music director Chris Nolan and vocal director Nicole Stinton for their superb collaboration in turning this into a gem of a musical.
Eugene dies in captivity, and after Georgette buries him, she recalls his last, unfulfilled wish for her self-portrait. When her father tells her that this isn’t the time to be thinking about art, she replies, "There is always time for art." Georgette Chen stays true to her life of art. And her art, very much like her life, is always her own.
Georgette is an intelligently written musical that succeeds in capturing the life and times of Georgette Chen. Highly recommended.