>reviewed by james koh

>date: 10 jan 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: the victoria theatre
>rating: ***1/2

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


In his recent Saturday column in the Straits Times, Tan Tarn How attempts to demythologise the image of the beng and the current trend of romanticising this underdog in Singaporean culture. But as he admits, in trying to understand this character, in humanising this stereotype, he falls into the very trap that he has tried to avoid from the start. And this happens to MR BENG the musical as well - which tried to portray the human side to this character, and which tried to come to terms with a person who justifies his actions through physical violence. And this was done by sensitively ignoring or reducing to melodrama the tangible threat to social order that a beng is capable of and by focusing more on the social bigotry and injustices that the main character, Mr Beng suffers from.

This is not to say that it was not an enjoyable performance. In its second run, much improvement has been made - a tighter plot, a well-crafted script that has subtler characterisation, new music and a great cast. This was an engaging piece of performance, and with its slick production, catchy toe-snapping tunes, large dance numbers, abundant melodrama - it had all the trademarks of a top-notch musical.

Direction by Kok Heng Leun was flawless. The use of large frames to enclose the scenes with Beng and his mother in their shop suggested the social claustrophobia of the lower classes. In a clever twist, an old woman slowly moved across the stage throughout the two-hour musical - initially ignored and unseen by all the characters on stage, she is helped by Beng at the end, thereby ambiguously hinting at a recognition of a culture which lags behind in the face of society's onward progress.

>>'Just hang up your scruples and see this as another instance of the middle class appropriating the poor for their own entertainment.'

And it is to Caleb Goh's credit that he manages to pull off the main character with great conviction, hiding his vulnerability beneath a surly manner - he was a beng with a heart. The dependable Beatrice Chia displayed her usual perfect comic timing and portrayed her rather one-dimensional character with subtle shades of gray. Meanwhile, Li Xie stunned the audience with her amazing voice while Tan Beng Chiak was poignantly moving as Beng's mother. But the performance of the evening had to go to Darren Seah, who played the character of Gregg, the gay assistant to Beatrice Chia's character, Peach. When Peach threatens to out him to his mother, he comes to terms with his homosexuality and to be who he wants to be, in one heart wrenching song which packed an emotional punch that left the audience breathless.

But there were some minor quibbles that marred the enjoyment of the performance. One of it was that the genre of MR BENG, the musical, had many characteristics which subsumed any social message that it wanted to say about a system which imposes upon its people to be the same while leaving behind people who are different in the name of progress; characteristics like the tendency to give a broad sweep in characterisation, its too contrived plot, its inclination to focus more on comedy than on drama (if it is drama, then the focus is on melodrama), and to simply depict the larger and more general 'truths' of love, hope and redemption.

Moreover, MR BENG was more a Bildungsroman than say an examination of a Singaporean cultural stereotype. It seemed more a portrayal of the coming of age of a character that happened to be called Beng and who also happened to be positioned in the lower classes, rather than an examination of the beng mentality. Thus, at times, the musical was dangerously close in equating being poor to that of being beng. It did not help that sometimes, Beng and his 'ah-lian' girlfriend May, did or had things that most bengs don't do or have, like having a laptop and having Beng use it to communicate with Peach through the email system.

And in trying to draw parallels between being gay and being beng through the common sense of Otherness that these two groups appear to share, the musical seemed to inaccurately suggest that being gay was as socially constructed as being beng - while in actual case, the former is an intrinsic as one's race or gender. Unless of course the musical was attempting to say that bengness is as Tan Tarn How suggests 'not just an outward thing, but something inside. It is a condition […] of the underdog.' But with its link between being poor and being beng, this was not the case.

So this is a musical which one should simply enjoy and not think too much about. Just hang up your scruples and see this as another instance of the middle class appropriating the poor for their own entertainment.