>CHAMELEON by Chameleon Productions

>reviewed by james koh

>date: 16 nov 2000
>time: 8pm
>venue: the jubilee hall, raffles hotel
>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.


Recently, two musicals based on the 1970s have appeared in West End: one is 'Grease The Musical' and the other is based on a collection of ABBA songs called, er, 'ABBA The Musical'. The difficulty both musicals faced was depicting a convincing and realistic portrayal of that particular era in a genre that emphasised its theatricality and its constructed nature through its big song and dance numbers. The solution of course was to rely on the familiarity of the songs - after all doesn't every household own at least either an ABBA album or a Grease soundtrack? - and for 'Grease The Musical', on the mythology of the film. In the case of CHAMELEON, a Broadway style musical that was set in 1970's Bugis Street and portrayed the community of transsexuals and transvestites living there at that time, it would seem that in the face of unfamiliar songs, the musical would rely on the mythology of Bugis Street itself, if not on the film of the same name.

But this was not to be, as CHAMELEON came across as a musical that was not at all concerned with playing around with the various myths of - or giving a realistic take on - Bugis Street, but only with telling a story that simply happened to take place in 70s Bugis Street. As such, CHAMELEON for all its allusions to Bugis Street was a strangely decontextualised, unconvincing and nostalgia-less take on the precarious community that inhabited the bars and cabaret clubs which lined the street in the 70's. In fact the characters appeared at times so distant from the specificity of the context - the perfect English, the Germaine Greer reference, the Anglocised bitching between the transvestites, the lack of any form of Singaporean identity of the 70's - that you wonder why they situated the musical in Bugis Street in the first place.

>>'In the end, CHAMELEON reminded you of the recent spate of cringe-worthy adverts that TCS 5 has made for itself - pointless and sorely lacking in attitude'

Perhaps the problem was in its attempt to place the gritty lives of transsexuals and transvestites in a Broadway-style musical - a genre that at best provided a cabaret style to the drag performance and at worst made the performance lack the necessary campy glamour and ironic kitsch. This uneasy balance was also manifested in the fact that CHAMELEON did not really know what it wanted to be - gritty drama or over the top melodrama; a realistic piece of theatre or a liberating piece of fairy tale. And this tension culminated in the fact that at times the musical was too earnest and simplistic in the handling of its subject matter, lacking a knowing Boom Boom Room-esque campiness; at other times it came across as being too clever and oh-so-ironic, with its sly wink to 'Chang and Eng' and other pop culture references. (This is, of course, the fine line between trashy films that are good trash and bad trash).

Moreover, the flimsy plot did not help to make the musical more cohesive. It told the story of the divine Ms Devine, the sultry transvestite who uses his gendered sexuality to help (and even at times force) various characters to literally come out of the closet and to come to terms with their sexuality and desires. And it was this coming to terms with ones' sexuality and gender that seemed in conflict with the nature of Bugis Street. After all, not every man in a dress wants to be woman, and Bugis Street was a world that blurred the binaries of gender and sexuality, and (using the latest cultural psycho-babble) emphasised a form of hetero/homo-flexibility. Yet with the intrusive didacticism at the end (the phrases "Faggot!" and "You must be true to yourself" are still ringing in my ears), Ms Devine with her brand of determinism that forced characters to choose one type of gender or sexuality, was preaching an essentialism that enforced hetero/homo-rigidity. In other words, it's black or white, either-or, one or the other - you HAVE to choose darling.

For all the one-dimensionality of the characters, it has to be said that both Earnest Seah as the bitchy Ms Devine and Cordelia Fernandez Lee as the sassy Pearl gave spirited performances. Meanwhile, Juwanda Hassim as Jasper charmed the audience with his deep baritone voice (as he did in the first 42@Waterloo Festival). But it was funny that in what one assumes to be a drag performance, half of the dancers were women (i.e. women who pretended to be men who pretended to be women). And perhaps it was because of this, that for most part, the song and dance numbers came across as too annoyingly earnest, lacking the glamourous kitsch and campy fun that drag dancers and performers have in their (almost political) act of subverting the status quo of hetero-normitivity's definitions of gender and beauty. Hell, they appeared as drag performers who didn't know that they were in a drag performance, stressing once again the lack of cultural authenticity or specificity to the whole performance.

Music by Bang Wenfu was adept with the usual Bacharach-lite numbers, Latino songs and overwrought ballads. But without a catchy or finger-snapping number, the music passed in a blur of undistinguishable songs. In the end, CHAMELEON reminded you of the recent spate of cringe-worthy adverts that TCS 5 has made for itself - you know, the ones where (for example) Jamie Yeo et al try unconvincingly to pose as Charlie's Angels, or the one where Andrew Seow, Harris Zaidi and the gang try to re-enact the boys doing that thing you do: pointless and sorely lacking in attitude.