>CHAMELEON by Chameleon Productions

>reviewed by seow yien lein

>date: 18 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.


Musicals about the glory days of Singapore sleaze joints have had their fair run on the local stage (see 'Bugis Street', 'Beauty World'). Chameleon Productions' debut production, CHAMELEON, is yet another attempt to capture the epic Bugis Street - albeit one that is in its death throes - and its infamous denizens. The time is 1979 and the Crystal Lounge (a fictitious pleasure house on the Street) is under threat from without and within: URA's ambitions and the inability of the Lounge's inhabitants to come to terms with their past and sexuality. In the latter case, Denise Marsh (writer, director, producer, lyricist) has chosen to work the plot around four characters: Pearl, a prostitute grappling with the emotional and physical scars various men, including her father, have left her with; Jade, a transvestite who is living out his mother's wish that he had been born female; Ruby, an over-the-hill transvestite with Hollywood on his mind; and Jasper, the permanently inebriated proprietor of the Lounge, who is also a closet homosexual. Now into all this throw in the musical's central character, a quasi-deity cum deus ex machina, cum transvestite extraordinaire ("I am Devine," he proclaims at the outset, "and I can give you what you want") and what you will get, in this attempt at black comedy in a "Broadway-style musical", is a ham-fisted and in many ways, amateurish piece of theatre.

The problem with CHAMELEON is simply that it tries to say and do too much. It fairly staggers under the weight of having to sustain five disparate characters, each with their own peculiar emotional baggage, as well as having to yoke their problems to the idea of urban encroachment and the passing of the Bugis Street era. Unsurprisingly, there is very little feel of this legendary place and the pathos that should come with its gradual demise. Unsurprising, too, is the bittiness of the plot which is never satisfactorily worked out, either through the songs or through action on stage. A good number of the former (e.g. 'Why Can't Men', 'Latino Lover', and 'Sparkle') while good as song and dance routines go, do not actually contribute very much to the development of either plot or character. Like the rich old uncle that irritatingly refuses to pop off, the denouement gobbles up a good three scenes (remarkable, considering there are only 4 scenes in the second and final act, excluding the finale) and, in addition, comes across as an unconvincing cop-out: a botched suicide job leaves Jasper a gibbering stroke victim, Pearl and Jade ride off into the sunset upon the latter's metamorphosis into a 'real' man, Ruby chucks his pink feathered boa and American Dream into the rubbish bin.

>>'The problem with CHAMELEON is simply that it tries to say and do too much. It fairly staggers under the weight of having to sustain five disparate characters, each with their own peculiar emotional baggage, as well as having to yoke their problems to the idea of urban encroachment and the passing of the Bugis Street era'

At the heart of its failure is the conception of Devine as a Stage Manager-type figure (a la Wilder's 'Our Town') who pretends to omniscience and moral authority, but who, at the same time, enters the twisted world of the musical's characters and messes their lives up. His introduction to the musical is bizarre at best, even for a black comedy, and raises far too many complications that the script is unable to resolve. Marsh would have done us all a favour if she had cut his role out all together and let the rest of the characters get on with their thing. That Marsh has made Devine central to the musical's message (if that may be discerned) betrays the true amateur roots of the script: CHAMELEON makes stabs at the meta-theatrical, the blasphemous, and the bathetic even though these three make uneasy bedfellows when combined in the person of Devine. Even if played by the veritable Ernest Seah, you simply cannot be convincing as a philosopher, devil's advocate, and Boom Boom Room comedian all rolled into one.

Especially annoying is the way Marsh insists on in-your-face comments to the audience, mostly on sexual morality, such as "What's normal? You? And who are you to judge?" It does not occur to Marsh that Devine, by an appeal to moral relativism, is calling into question his very authority to pronounce society misguided in its conception of sexual deviance. Similarly, Pearl and Jade's attempt at engaging issues such as feminism, femininity and masculinity (Pearl reads Germaine Greer) through such songs as 'Why Can't Men' and Jade's sexual re-orientation in the second act, only serves to re-inscribe women and men into stereotypical gender roles - disappointing for a musical that describes itself as 'black comedy' and which wants to deal with such hot issues as homosexuality and transsexuality.

All this, perhaps, wouldn't have been so bad if the singing, score and music had been memorable. They weren't. The actors are largely indifferent singers (with the possible exceptions of Pearl, played by Cornelia Lee, and Jasper, played by Juwanda Hassim), the rhymes were put upon, the music was not sufficiently late 70s to evoke the era or a sense of its passing. The set, too, could have done with more thought. A suspiciously clean facade of a supposedly decaying Bugis joint with a smallish wooden bar to one side, a couple of stools, a table and two chairs simply makes for too much empty space on a musical stage.

For the majority of its audience, however, CHAMELEON probably delivered the goods: the trite double entendres and topical references to Singaporean theatre got the cheap laughs they were meant to get (Devine on how to handle men: "Give them a good hard shake until they come - to their senses"; a lesser character launches into the first few lines from 'Mai Phen Rai', a song from Action Theatre's 'Chang and Eng') the well choreographed dance routines rightly earned the audience's applause. Lee, Hoh (as Jade) and Seah easily stood out as superior actors who did much to carry the show through its two hour run. Seah, in particular, is evidently gifted in playing a raunchy version of the opposite sex.

It is therefore a pity that Marsh's script and direction should have left this "black comedy, Broadway-style musical" wanting on the most important counts. Yet, the interest CHAMELEON has generated suggests that the Bugis Street theme still has considerable mileage left in it. In more masterly hands, we could have had the makings of a theatrical production that would truly have stood out from the rest of its kind; as it stands, we have one which looks set, one hopes, to fade into theatrical obscurity with the passing of time.