Fresh off her stunning turn as Young Yehenara in Forbidden City, Cheryl Tan is wowing audiences in Mama White Snake! But how did this Malaysian-born talent make her way to the main stage in Singapore?
Cheryl Tan’s voice is, quite simply, extraordinary.
Anyone who’s seen her perform on the Singapore stage – from her first lead role in 2015’s Beauty World to her star-making turn in Forbidden City earlier this year – would have borne witness to the magic she makes when she sings.
As she tells it, however, not everyone was quite so enamoured of her singing when she was younger.
“My parents once took me to see a production of The Sound Of Music in KL,” she says. “I have no memory of this, but I’m told I got kicked out of the theatre because I was singing along too loudly!”
It should come as no surprise, then, to learn that Cheryl is a bit of a “musical theatre nerd”.
Her fascination with the genre – one which requires performers to act, sing and dance, often at the same time – began at home.
“My dad had all these cast albums, and he used to take us to watch musicals,” she explains.
“Everyone else had an edgy musical teenagehood, when they listened to, like, Good Charlotte or Eminem or Nine Inch Nails,” she laughs. “And I was listening to Into The Woods!”
To this day, she still cites Stephen Sondheim’s classic – a brilliantly dark twist on the fairy-tale concept of ‘happily ever after’’ – as one of her favourite musicals.
“My dream role is every role in Into The Woods,” she reveals.
For much of her youth, Cheryl was actively involved in theatre productions – including her first professional job, at the age of 15, in an adaptation of Philip Osment’s Little Violet and The Angel – and a show choir, The Young KL Singers (now known as The Young Choral Academy).
School Of Life
- Still learning every day while in rehearsal for Mama White Snake!
When she moved to the United States for college, however, Cheryl found herself drifting away from the theatre.
“I studied music and theatre at this liberal arts college in Connecticut,” she explains. “But it wasn’t a conservatory, so the work we did was more academic and historical.”
Nonetheless, she’s glad for everything she learnt there – she believes it opened up her horizons, both as an person and as an artist.
“It was an amazing place,” she recalls. “It helped me to think differently about the world and about myself.”
She’s not sure she would have had that same time and space for self-reflection and growth if she had been training exclusively for musical theatre.
“You have to be a crazy craftsman and technician – you’re singing and dancing for eight hours a day, essentially training like an athlete would,” she explains. “There’s not much time for anything else!”
She took the opportunity to explore other interests – she got involved in Japanese drumming for a while, and when she returned to Malaysia in 2012, she sang jazz at clubs in KL for a year.
- Cheryl heads to not-so-ancient China in Forbidden City
Cheryl’s life-long love of the theatre was revived in full force when she arrived in Singapore to audition for a film. While that didn’t pan out (the movie itself got canned), she started going for theatre auditions.
She snagged her first role in Singapore Repertory Theatre’s Young Co production of Red Riding Hood – a show she remembers as “really good – solidly written and very well-produced”.
Thereafter, her career took off. After making her main-stage debut in 2014 in Dick Lee’s Hot Pants The Musical, she won the iconic role of Ivy Chan Poh Choo in the 2015 revival of Beauty World.
She’s since taken on ever greater challenges – from tackling Shakespeare for the first time in Romeo & Juliet, to inheriting the role of Young Yehenara from the beloved Kit Chan in Forbidden City.
Reflecting on the past few years, Cheryl is proud of how far she’s come – especially since it involved a great deal of learning on the job.
“I’m a much better actor now,” she confesses. “I didn’t have formal training, although I took a lot of acting and singing classes on my own. So consistency was a problem for me.
“It was only in Forbidden City that I really felt I was unlocking something there. I’m much calmer now, as a performer, and more secure in terms of my vocals and my acting.”
Taking A Walk On The W!LD Side
Cheryl is thrilled to cap off one of her busiest years yet with Mama White Snake –
her first show with W!LD RICE.
Since the show opened in late November, she’s been wowing audiences as Mimi, showing off her spectacular octave-vaulting voice on songs such as Wrong And Right and Yuan Fen.
“This role is a tough sing!” she confesses. “Prior to this, I had never sung above a D on stage before. And I have to belt an E-Natural in this show – twice!”
Not only does she have to keep her singing voice in tip-top condition, she’s had to practise and perfect an impressive wushu sequence she performs in the show. Just this past weekend, she pulled a muscle in her shoulder while performing the routine.
- Practice Makes Perfect
At least all the hard work has been completely worth it.
“It’s so good to be in a show where you’re inspired by everyone around you,” she says. “When everyone is a badass, that’s the best!”
She admits to still being “star-struck” at times, now that she’s working under the direction of Pam Oei and sharing the stage with the likes of Ivan Heng.
“They’re all my role models!” she declares. “Pam is so cool and you always get the sense that she’s on top of everything; it makes me feel safe.
“And I still remember seeing Ivan in Emily Of Emerald Hill in KL when I was 12. It’s amazing to get the chance to observe how he works and processes things behind the scenes.”
All in all, Mama White Snake has been one of Cheryl’s best professional experiences to date.
“I just really feel very loved here!” she laughs. “W!LD RICE is a magical wonderland of niceness, and I never want it to end!”