The World Is Not Enough
Remember the Boom Boom Room? That kooky little gay club on Amoy Street with the hottest go-go boys in the country? That was where Kumar made his name in the 90s as Singapore's best and most outrageous comedian - dressed in evening gown or sari, he'd tell the filthiest jokes in town to a mixed group of army boys, tourists and club kids, shattering all our petty PC taboos of sex, race and politics. Honestly: in an age where PELU was censoring plays left, right and centre, what he got away with saying was fucking amazing.
So it's no wonder that Kumar: The Queen got a colossal turnout: we wanted to relive those days of naughtiness on a concert-hall scale, with a quality worth a top-dollar ticket to the Esplanade. Dream Academy attempted to deliver on our dreams by pouring its proceeds into amping up the cabaret effects - a plot emerged, in which Kumar set off to become Queen of the World, justifying set and costume changes portraying exotica from Bollywood to Brazil. Yet somewhere along the way, these dreams of domination fell through - the splendid gallimaufries of the proscenium stage just weren't enough.
Sure, the show started with a big enough bang, as the chorus boys and girls employed Kamasutra-esque permutations of their bodies to mime a symphony orchestra, mocking the classical chi-chi of the grand proscenium stage as Kumar himself descended from the flybar in a concentric series of radiating hearts.
But very quickly, we fans began to notice that something was subtly amiss. When the buffed chorus boys, whom Kumar introduced as his Grrrr-khas, did a military salute, it was slipshod and unsynchronised. Later dance routines were similarly inadequately co-ordinated - a far cry from the sharp moves of the Boom Boom Room ensemble of yesteryear - and none of the choristers had anything resembling stage presence on the few occasions when they were called upon to speak.
While Kumar's standup skills were as sharp as ever, the plot of the evening seemed strangely exhausting. Having excoriated Singapore with his usual wit, our hero(ine) announced that he was now weary of the country, and would thus seek queendom in other realms, yet his antics in each successive nation seldom often seemed so pointless and irrelevant that one sometimes wished he'd never left off mocking our own country. What was the reasoning behind that absurd dance-off in China that resulted in his becoming Empress? And what about that scene in which the comedian is chased and almost cooked by African cannibals? (I do believe it's productive to be able to joke about race; but this scene was played from a position of such ignorance and cliché about a still disadvantaged group that I honestly don't think it was appropriate.)
Having a weak, perfunctory plot didn't just hurt the drama of Kumar: The Queen; it also hurt the comedy, as the comedian's jokes seemed gradually hampered and diluted as the night went on. The supposed climax of the show occurred when Kumar emerges from Buckingham Palace wearing the British crown, having convinced Elizabeth II to relinquish her duties and thus allow him to restore the glory of the House of Windsor. And all it took after that was a Beefeater bearing the daily schedule, packed full of meetings with Prime Minister Brown, to send him packing home for Singapore in a blaze of renewed patriotism, borne out of fatigue.
I don't want to exaggerate the flaws of this show - Kumar remained larger than life throughout the show, delivering a performance that was incontrovertibly enjoyable on the whole (though also lamentably overpriced). The ensemble, too, had its moments - playing US Homeland Security officials arresting Kumar and sending him to Guantanamo Bay, or playing an all-singing all-dancing crowd at Changi Airport, including two Buddhist monks and a gun-toting Islamic terrorist - how gloriously wrong is that?
Still, it's rather telling that the writers of this show decided to place the entire tale within the context of ennui. It's not the 90s anymore: theatre companies can now get funds to stage plays critical of the government and queer nightlife is practically a pillar of the economy. Now that so many of the old taboos have gone, how can a rebel like Kumar maintain his street cred? In Singapore, he does standup at Hard Rock Café and performs cameos in everything from Channel 5's My Sassy Neighbour to the National Museum gala 120 to the Fringe Festival youth special Survivor Singapore - hell, we've even exported him to London for Singapore Seasons in a performance of Asian Boys Vol. 1.
Perhaps Kumar - like so many other Singaporean practitioners - feels a desire to escape the tiny circle of theatre we have here, to discover some hitherto unimagined relevance abroad. Witness the show's final number - a rendition of I Don't Wanna Show Off from The Drowsy Chaperone, in which Kumar announces his resignation from showbiz in a theatrical show of wild choreography and magic tricks that make it clear that he'll never leave the stage. Is there some subtext here of a lust for self-transformation, a longing to become dangerous again?
In a way, the act of changing the tried and true formula of Kumar's standup comedy is an attempt to break free of a prior identity. But it's terribly hard to leave the past behind - one of the crowd's favourite moments, in fact, was a segment based on classic Boom Boom Room madness, set in Bangkok, with the chorus gals trussed up as khon dancers and the boys dragged out as kathoeys, leaping into the aisles to do skirted backflips amidst the audience while Kumar lip-synced to a Thai-accented cover of I Will Survive. No introductory babble, no extraneous plot - nada. Just deliciously brainless camp.
From a marketing point of view, it's obvious what Dream Academy Productions should've done to create a palatable show: cast better dancers, rehearse them longer, invest in a slightly less tacky set, and not attempt any kind of narrative or acting in the show - just have a fashion parade of costumes and crass comedy, with Kumar to be the lovable drag diva whom everyone knows already.
It's more difficult to make a recommendation from the perspective of someone who believes in growth and transformation in the arts scene. Perhaps Kumar - whose royal status should not be in dispute - could have played off the chemistry of a similar, but not identical brand of comedian. Norleena Salim used to front for him in the Boom Boom Room, and there are various other comic drag queens who've MCed gay and lesbian events to popular approval - why not help to bring them into the limelight as well?
Kumar: The Queen promises the world but doesn't quite make
good on its word: for the time being, at least, Kumar's performance
style isn't flexible enough to portray a quest for power on stage, and
the comedian's best appreciated when he's being utterly himself. It'll
be risky business - intriguing, but risky - if he resolves to transform
himself further, either by exploring other genres or new geographical
horizons, but whatever the case, one thing is sure: for my generation,
he will forever be a legend.
Kumar's standup is still great in a proscenium theatre - plenty of politically incorrect, shit-your-pants laughter to be had here, as the iconic drag comedian takes on race, religion, politics and even the Esplanade itself. But there's actually little added value in taking his nightclub act to the big stage - sure, he's got the fabulous costumes of Dream Academy and some borderline-cool sets to play with, but his chorusline of buffed boys and slinky gals just aren't slick or co-ordinated enough with their dance moves, and the shaky plot of his journeying from nation to nation to become Queen of the Universe doesn't contribute any zing to his jokes, which actually become a tad repetitive after a while. As a whole, I've seen better shows of his in the old Boom Boom Room, where the dancers were ripped and synced and knew everything from hip-hop to bharatnantyam. I'll admit this, though - Kumar is still larger than life, and gives an enjoyable show no matter what the extenuating circumstances.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /