Performing a Pantomime in an Pandemic

Beginning in 2003 with Cinderel-LAH!, Singaporean theatre powerhouse WILD RICE would put on a spectacular, family-friendly pantomime to end off their theatre season for the year glamorously. From classic European folk tales like Hansel and Gretel  to Asian myths like Mama White Snake, every pantomime is an adaptation of a beloved fairytale – except with a Singaporean twist. The last Christmas pantomime was 2019’s Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens. Often characterised by flamboyant costumes and an extensive cast of theatre superstars and young actors, this year is a little different due to the coronavirus pandemic.


Aside from the relatively smaller cast playing multiple characters, a significant change in this production is its theme. While pantomimes are typically held around the Christmas season, the shift in dates puts it right during the Chinese New Year holiday, allowing the company to show us their take on a beloved Chinese folktale and engage an audience that already knows how this story will go…


Inspired by the Legend of the Chinese Zodiac, The Amazing Celestial Race is a musical comedy that’s fun for the entire family. Directed by Glen Goei, one of Singapore’s most acclaimed film and theatre directors, WILD RICE’s latest pantomime raises the Lunar New Year festive spirit with a retelling of the ancient Chinese legend: Twelve animals compete in a race hosted by the Heavenly Jade Emperor to receive the honour of having a place on the Jade Emperor’s Zodiac – and they’re all gunning for first place. Along the way, as they face various obstacles in this comical and pop-culture inspired piece, they will learn that life isn’t all about coming in first place. 


Performed in WILD RICE’s signature Funan theatre, the stage is illuminated by dazzling, colourful lights and intricate set designs. Packed with animal puns, moral tales and pop cultural references, the witty writing flies at you thick and fast, so keep your eyes glued to the stage! The audience in the theatre was a mixed group, with people from all ages and races… but the laughter was consistent. 


To help audiences keep up with the multitude of characters, the event is hosted by two cheerful bird sports commentators, gleefully commenting on the performances of each of the competitors as they face various trials of valour. With thundering rain and rapid tides of the river, the play uses a wide variety of tricks that keeps the audience enraptured such as animation, dances, and musical numbers. 


Each animal introduces themselves with a catchy song and dance number, teaching various valuable life lessons along the way. There are memorable characters such as the mischievous Rat and his scaredy-cat best friend, Cat. These little guys use their intelligence to compensate for their small sizes. The competitive Tigress learns selflessness and sacrifice whereas the ever-cheerful TikTok influencer Rabbit, each shares her ideals and dreams for winning the race.


A personal favourite is the scene with the Dragon. Throughout most of the race, the Dragon is far ahead of the rest – but why doesn’t this powerful, mythical animal win first place? The play explains it with an action-packed scene, where the Dragon comes across a village on fire. He has to put out the fire and does his best to save the villages and their belongings, taking a short detour from the race and showing us that life is not necessarily all about winning the race.  


With the diverse array of characters and wild personalities, it is impressive this was performed by only five actors. The highly versatile cast executed each of their roles with distinction, constantly re-entering the stage with their various personas, embodying different roles each time. Between the singing and wisecracking, I loved how the children root and cheer for their Zodiac animal to win, keeping the competitive spirit high throughout the show. 


The Amazing Celestial Race is a wild and fun ride, best suited for 1 hour of family fun while still guaranteeing laughter for audiences of all ages. With various modern unique twists, the play highlights the good and bad qualities of every Zodiac animal, teaching them how to accept their unique strengths and flaws alike. A great re-telling of an ancient story filled with modern jokes, it is a great introduction for children to learn about Chinese culture and morals. As the pig wisely says, “life is about the journey, not the destination”!


The play is jam-packed with witty observations, and this production was a blast to watch. Beautifully portraying a fantastic setting, with a stellar cast and clever script. It is a great play that teaches character-building values to children, but I would mostly recommend this pantomime for families with children, as the bright lights and constant animal puns may not be suitable for everyone. Nonetheless, the play has several tricks up its sleeves that may surprise those familiar with the story, and the cheerfulness of the cast is infectious. The Amazing Celestial Race ran from 19 Feb to 21 Mar 2021 and we can’t wait to see what else WILD RICE has in store for us! 

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