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Production

Beauty World

Company

W!ld Rice

Reviewer

Amos Toh

Date

06/01/2008

Time

8.00pm

Place

Esplanade Theatre

Rating

***

Pretty City

Beauty World is an unusual marriage of styles and sensibilities: knowing irony and earnest sentiment, self-serious politics and silly frivolity, an intimate family drama and an expensive, effects-laden blockbuster. Evoking the hedonistic heyday of the swinging sixties, Michael Chiang and Dick Lee's classic musical attempts to embody a Singaporean utopia we have always imagined but never dared to realise.

I would argue that Beauty World does not invite nostalgia; instead, it is a testament to how little we have changed. Beneath its glossy demeanour is a nuanced, if slightly predictable portrayal of our apologetic, self-deprecatory brand of humour that has endured through the times. The characters that inhabit Beauty World - be it the obsequious go-go girl, the hilariously inept and corrupt Malay policeman, or the uppity Eurasian Rosemary (Alemay Fernandez) who thumbs her nose at "no class" go-go queen Lulu (Denise Tan) - are not exclusive to the sixties, but exhibit quintessentially Singaporean traits that resonate with current audiences. Beauty World's oscillation between Hokkien swearing and proper English is timeless; so is the battle of race and class between Rosemary and Lulu in the pulsing, foot-stomping number No Class.

Smoking, another lasting, if controversial aspect of the Singapore landscape, also features prominently in both the ensemble scenes and individual performances of Beauty World. The dancers blow smoke rings into the audience; the businessmen that patronise the cabaret alternate between long, deep breaths of their cigars and big gulps of XO; Ah Hock (Daren Tan), the quintessential chao ah beng, lights up frequently; nerdy Frankie (Dwayne Tan) chokes on a cigarette coaxed into his mouth. Tendrils of smoke uncoil on stage, conferring even the most frantic dance sequences with a dreamlike aesthetic. The staging of smoking - as a rite of passage, means of escapism or perhaps even a national pastime - is a valiant attempt to recapture the romanticism of a practice increasingly marginalised by tightening anti-smoking restrictions and growing public censure.

In keeping with this nationalistic spirit, Beauty World is conceived on a scale of typical Singaporean excess. Aesthetically, the introduction arrests you: sequined go-go girls weave through a spiffy line of their slick-haired male counterparts on an intricate cabaret set crowned with a stunning light-bulb-studded Beauty World sign. This musical looks terrific, as if almost every cent was spent in the right place. John C. Dinning's stylised sets and Moe Kasim's glittering costumes create a rich series of stage pictures, arranged with flair by Ivan Heng.

Ironically, this tendency towards excess also mars the pace and fluency of several sequences. In high-stepping parade numbers like Lulu's brazen solo, Nothing Gets In My Way, everything, it seems, gets in Denise Tan's way. For a song attempting to convey the ruthlessness of a character that bullies everyone else into submission, a commanding physical and vocal presence is especially crucial. Unfortunately, on a stage crammed with a live band, a sprawling ensemble of dancers and kitsch cabaret furniture, Tan's movement is impeded. Her admittedly gut-busting soprano strains to rise above the din of the band and the chorus. Theatre is a game of space, and evidently, Heng overestimated the size of the proscenium.

The current cast of Beauty World is a wildly uneven patchwork of talents. True to form, Irene Ang and Neo Swee Lin exude a breezy effortlessness in their hilarious renditions of a Cantonese-spouting servant and cabaret "mummy" respectively. These are hardly groundbreaking roles, and for actresses of their calibre, anything less would have been disappointing.

The show's young starlets are less impressive. While Dwayne Tan delivers a uniformly insipid rendition of Frankie, there is nothing forgettable about Daren Tan's overly earnest and largely off-key performance of Ah Hock. Warbling the tunes and fumbling with the lyrics, his weak, shaky voice is unable to carry the loftier numbers written for his character, giving the audience plenty to cringe about. Also, the ensemble is a sketchy hodgepodge of reed-thin voices that fail to adequately support the main cast. The signature cha-cha-cha number may be visually dazzling, but is ultimately let down by bland singing.

Bucking this dismal trend is Elena Wang, who is revelatory in her note-perfect portrayal of innocent-turned-worldly-wise Batu Pahat girl Ivy. In contrast to Tan's vocal richness and sustained power, Wang sings beguilingly and conversationally, lending breadth of statement and lyrical integrity to her phrasing. While Alemay Fernandez's singing may not be as spectacular, one can't help but like her irresistible charm as scatterbrained Rosemary in a performance which sparkles with playful, eager energy.

In the abrupt conclusion to Beauty World, a thwarted Ah Hock characteristically lights up a cigarette in frustration. When he most needs it, his lighter fails him. One by one, each member of the cast surrounding him produces a lighter, and the darkened stage becomes a blanket of little flames. The poignancy of this moment, I feel, is not earned, but deliberately thrust on the audience, jarring with the proudly melodramatic character of a musical that dispenses its charm too easily and cheaply. Nevertheless, Beauty World is largely campy, feel-good entertainment, pitched well to an audience imbued with the new-year spirit of good cheer and optimism.


"Beneath its glossy demeanour is a nuanced, if slightly predictable portrayal of our apologetic, self-deprecatory brand of humour that has endured through the times"

Credits

Director: Ivan Heng

Producer: Tony Trickett

Book by Michael Chiang

Music and lyrics by Dick Lee

Cast: Denise Tan, Dwayne Tan, Neo Swee Lin, Alemay Fernandez, Daren Tan, Irene Ang and Elena Wang

Ensemble: Richard Chia, Gordon Choy, Farah Dawood, Zachary Goh, Farhan Hassan, Hang Qian Chou, Lily Nora Kamsani, Cathy Kee, Scott Lei, Jonathan Lum, Cheryl Miles, Olivr Pang, Jacqueline Pereira, Tony Quek, Gene Sha Rudyn, Darius Tan, Judy Tan, Filomar C. Tariao, Kelly Tuan, Stephanie Van Den Driesen and Esther Yap

Set Design: John C. Dinning

Choreographer: Aaron Khek and Ix Wong

Lighting Design: Mac Chan

Costumes: Moe Kasim

Hair and Wigs: Ashley Lim

Sound Design: Shah Tahir

Musical Direction and Arrangement: Iskandar Ismail

Orchestral / Sound Design: Sydney Tan

Vocal Coach: Amanda Colliver

Production Manager: Koh Bee Lee

Stage Manager: Woo Hsia Ling

More Reviews of Productions by W!ld Rice

More Reviews by Amos Toh

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.