Wa Si Hokkien Lang
Broadway Beng Returns is one of the reasons we should be proud of our local theatre, since it is a performance that can truly call itself just that. With its blend of English, Mandarin, Hokkien and Singlish used to raise hot topics in our society, Beng is fun, smart and enjoyable.
As Broadway Beng Sebastian Tan liked to brag, Beng returns this year with an upgrade in location from the DBS Arts Centre to the Drama Centre. The Broadway Beng, or BB as I shall affectionately call him hereafter, prided his return this year on being "bigger and brighter", citing the increase in light bulbs from 14 to 14000 as proof. It should be noted, however, that while the audience enjoyed his bragging, his entourage of Chio Bus, or CBs, as he named them, resented his calling them "bigger"!
For two hours of the evening, BB and his CBs went on a tirade about
money matters, mummy woes, and prostitute problems. While the jokes
were campy and the action sometimes farcical, they injected life into
BB's speeches which explored relevant societal concerns and built
up to songs and medleys with his CBs. Light-hearted jibes were made
at the typical heartlander's love of gambling and, as with all
local stand up shows, the government's stringency as well. But
unlike most local stand up shows which merely revolve around these big
social issues, Beng gets cosy and intimate. What makes this
show different and endearing is how BB shares the characteristics of
your typical Singaporean. His show, thus, demonstrates how we locals
view and behave in the light of all that happens in our society. Instead
of the satirical and disguised criti- I mean commentary, on social-political
matters that one is exposed to in other such shows, Beng personalises
the experience through the disclosure of BB's own feelings and
thoughts, which are akin to our own, as fellow ‘bengs',
or at least Singaporeans.
My pick of the evening was the spoof of The Phantom of the Opera which was aptly named The Phantom of the Chinese Opera. The laughter reached breaking point during BB's retelling of the Phantom's tale, in Hokkien, complete with several unique takes on the characters and plot. I will never be able to forget how they twisted the climatic scene when the Phantom brings Christine to his underground place and they appear in a blow-up rubber raft. The undercutting of all the high drama in the original Phantom in this spoof will greatly entertain you, even if you do not understand all the Hokkien parts.
In fact, I did not understand any of the Hokkien parts of the show but even with my limited grasp of the language, which extends to "Si mi tai chi?" and "Jiak png", I was completely immersed in the Hokkien duet by BB and his CB Denise Tan. The level of vocal power was astronomical at this point and both of them share equal credit for that. But on the whole, I felt Tan stole the limelight with her heart-wrenching wails and dramatization of the song. In terms of understanding the story behind the song, unfortunately, I didn't. I think it had something to do with both of them being drunk and in love yet refusing to admit either but do not take my word for it, because I only made sense of one line in the whole song. The point is that the story didn't matter. The emotion that poured out of the song, along with the alcohol, was so great that it spoke to me beyond what understanding those foreign words alone would do.
Having said that, it must be admitted that one consistent complaint made by some audience members was an inability to understand some of the content of the show. The production team, however, cannot be blamed since the show was promoted with the disclaimer "Hokkien (and vulgarities) used". With full knowledge of this possible flaw, BB chose to retain the use of local dialects and I think this proved to be a good choice as his language-hopping skills kept the energy high and the atmosphere laid back. In particular, I applaud his good grasp of the complicated but lively Hokkien dialect which is lost to so many of my generation.
The CBs had their moment to shine when it came to the second last act of the show. They played three out-of-work prostitutes who found that their careers were threatened by the onslaught of overwhelming competition. Taking the lead from Leigh Mcdonald's character, Tan and Jackie Pereira realized that "You gotta have a gimmick, if you want to get ahead." Their, ahem, special gimmicks, though, are reserved for application in the bedroom so do not follow in their footsteps by taking up horn-blowing lessons, tying tassels to your bottom or lighting up your crotch in the shape of a heart. Their performance sparkled but the message they were sending out - that our world is one filled with tricks and tricksters are the ones who get ahead in the game – was not particularly sharp. Also, without BB to balance out the high oestrogen levels onstage, and with the absence of his local speech and mannerisms, this scene did little for the pacing of the show and was its weakest part, though still worth a few tawdry laughs.
The Broadway Beng returned with a touch of glam and lots of fun as Sebastian Tan's delightfully local persona reminded you of what it means to be Singaporean and how to enjoy it to the maximum. If you are on the side of the debate that believes Singlish manifests our local culture and should be promoted, this show is for you.
If local theatre knows its stuff, the Broadway Beng should return,
for a third coming.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /