>CHANG AND ENG by ACTION Theatre

>reviewed by matthew lyon

>date: 5 jan 2001
>time: 8pm
>venue: kallang theatre
>rating: ***

>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.
 

>>>>>magnificent fluff

It's back. Singapore's favourite Thai-centric, Filipino-starring, "home-grown" uber-musical has dragged itself - via a mini-performance in Fort Canning Park and a posh CD launch at Waterloo Street - onto the stage at Kallang to begin its latest, most anticipated run and to recount for us one more time the life story of the very first Siamese twins.

As soon as Martin Lane (playing the manipulative Captain Coffin) let rip with the opening number, it was clear that this was a cast who could sing. Almost without exception, they had strong, rich voices which scarcely needed the subtle amplification they were given, and which were capable of doing justice to the technicalities of the music. What they generally lacked, though, was expression. Most singers performed with the dryness of a child asked to sing before relatives and betrayed the spirit, if not the letter of the law of performing. There were of course, exceptions - Lane at his best managed to carry off an air of menace, while Selena Tan as the twins' mother let her heart show in her voice and Natalie Bassingthwaighte as Adelaide Yates lifted her songs with her feminine but feisty vocals.

Unfortunately and through no fault of her own, she was not able to lift them to the point of being memorable. Indeed, there were only two tunes in Ken Low's score that you could conceivably walk out humming*. I suppose this is the case with all but the very best musicals, and I concede that even the forgettable songs were pleasant enough and appropriate to the action, but after a while, you began to tire of their middle-of-the-road melodies. Of the two that stood out, the tearjerker Mai Phen Rai would have held its own in any show I can think of, and Eighth Wonder of the World was a big, brassy, ballsy bonanza complemented skilfully by Iskander Ismail's orchestral arrangement.

The lyrics, also by Low, generally managed to keep up with the better tunes, but were often prosaic and occasionally clumsy in the less accomplished ones. Not as clumsy, however, as several moments in Ming Wong's script. Even the slushiest sentimentalist would, I submit, cringe at lines like the following, probably slightly misquoted ones: Eng: "Do you ever want to be alone?" Chang: (with great feeling) "No! Yes. Sometimes!"

>>'People don't go to such productions for catharsis - perhaps spectacle and songs are enough.'

If the script were a football match, it would be a strung-together sequence of set pieces: penalties, free kicks and corners, with no actual free play. Obviously, the writer wanted to concentrate on the dramatic events and to tell the whole story of the twins' lives, but subtlety, development and continuity were sacrificed in the process. Even in a musical, it should take longer than ten minutes to fall in love with someone, marry them and produce twenty-one children; and the five-minute treatment of the American Civil War, was so cursory as to be pointless.

Director Ekachai Uekrongtham struggled to get the most out of limited situations. Often he struggled too hard. Although visually confident, he too eschewed all subtlety in favour of continual high emotion; but the peaks of high emotion can't be scaled all in one go - one requires both time and coaxing to get up there - and neither the script nor the on/off, binary direction provided them.

Apparently, a certain authenticity had been introduced into the dancing for this run, with specialist choreographer Narumol Smuthkochorn flown in from Thailand to help out. Although wholly unaware of traditional Thai dance, I would venture to say that it looked rather authentic to me and was certainly aesthetically pleasing. On a more general level, a fight scene (Chang and Eng vs. The Villagers!) started poorly, with no weight or timing, but warmed up into an athletic little melee and there was a good use of space in most numbers. The only problems were due to the accepted fact that physics in musicals is often unaccountably different to physics in real life. In this case, the actors suffered under the post-Newtonian law that any character pushed lightly while dramatic music is playing will slam into the ground as if hit by a 747.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the production was its sets. Well-crafted and meticulously detailed, they arrived smoothly on cue and seemingly from nowhere; and they kept on coming, so that you had to wonder where they kept them all. Realistic painted backdrops could be glimpsed behind solidly constructed foregrounds so that a real feeling of depth was produced.

It was a depth that was absent from the rest of the show. Certainly, money had been spent. It had been thrown at the production in great heaps and was clearly visible in the costumes, the cast and the professionalism of the whole affair. But all this spectacular surface went without substance, and apart from Mai Phen Rai (which was reprised enough times) the emotional heart was hardly beating.

The most extreme example of this came right at the end with the death of the twins. Chang dies first, and Eng, still attached to his corpse, scrabbles around for a couple of seconds, as if looking for a contact lens, then gives up, sings a couple of dodgy lines and lies down himself. It was an absolute cop-out, a complete refusal to engage with the dramatic and horrific power of the situation and it failed utterly to evoke any emotion from this reviewer.

I sound much meaner than I intended. After all, CHANG AND ENG has merely fallen into the shallow glamour trap that so many musicals fall into. And perhaps people don't go to such productions for catharsis - perhaps spectacle and songs are enough. Go decide for yourself, for there are wonderful sights to be seen and impressive sounds to be heard, but don't look too hard for any feelings to be felt.

*Perhaps I'm being harsh; with a little effort, I can remember a couple more.