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Phua Chu Kang


Anatomy of a Failure

Book: uncredited
Composer: Edmund Ooi and Peter Casey
Lyrics by Edmund Ooi, Catherine Casey, Vivienne Lin, Adeline Tan
Music Arranger: Peter Casey
Director: Edmund Ooi
Choreographer: Bill Calhoun
Venue: Kallang Indoor Stadium
Dates: 10-20 June 2005
Rating: * (out of four stars)

In Mel Brooks' The Producers, Max Bialystock sets out to produce a musical that will fail at the box office and yet succeed in raising bountiful funds from sponsors. I think he would be very proud of Phua Chu Kang the Musical.

Failures are more instructive than successes. Phua Chu Kang the Musical is a critical failure. What went wrong, and what can we learn from it?

Lesson Number 1: Huge budget does not necessarily mean good quality

Ostensibly Phua Chua Kang the Musical had everything going for it. First it had the boastful $3 million budget. By any stretch of the imagination, even allowing for some exaggeration, a Singapore musical that has such an opulent budget must deliver something ... there must be a "wow" factor. Sadly that never came. I wondered where all the money went. The sets were well-designed, but did not look particularly extravagant. The stars' costumes were appropriately "cheap-looking", and at no time did anybody wear anything remotely lavish. The sound system was bad, one could not hear the singers too clearly, there was some feedback noise, there were extraneous popping and thud sounds, and occasionally the microphones failed to work altogether. Technical problems can plague even the best production. But we do not expect so many problems with a budget of $3 million.

Lesson Number 2: Stars do not guarantee success

Secondly it had a "star" cast from the sitcom, Phua Chu Kang. They were all there, each one a well-known television and film celebrity. Gurmit Singh, Irene Ang, Pierre Png, Tan Kheng Hua, Neo Swee Lin, Lim Kay Siu. But can they sing? The answer to this important question is a resounding "no". To be fair, Gurmit Singh and Tan Kheng Hua are slightly above average. Unfortunately the rest of the cast is below average. Does it matter? Yes, because this is commercial musical theater. I'm afraid average is not good enough. The acting was okay, but not sufficiently brilliant to compensate for the mediocre singing. The corp of dancers seem totally detached from the story, and their dancing was rather ragged and unemotional.

Lesson Number 3: You live by the book, you die by the book

Thirdly the book is weak. The story is about contractor Phua Chu Kang (Gurmit Singh) on the brink of turning 40. He drops copious hints to his relatives and workers, but they all pretend not to know, while secretly planning a surprise birthday party. In the meantime, Phua Chu Kang's arch nemesis, Frankie Foo (Lim Kay Siu), angry that Chu Kang had stolen his childhood sweetheart Rosie (Irene Ang), vows vengeance. He plants one of his relatives, a Chu Kang lookalike who claims to be Chu Kang's brother Chu Kok (Roy Ngerng). Chu Kang is hoodwinked by this imposter who takes him to see a Feng Shui master (Sheikh Haikel). The latter informs Chu Kang that he will die on his 40th birthday. Depressed, Chu Kang signs away his house and all his belongings to his brother. Chu Kang's family is angry and upset that everything has been given away to this fraudulent brother. Frankie Foo then enters to reveal his dastardly scheme, and comes to claim his home and to evict Phua Chu Kang and his family.

The problem is that the story is too slight, too predictable, and there are not enough twists and turns to surprise the audience. The setup takes too long and meanders excessively, so interest is lost early on. Unnecessary diversions into long scenes about first aid ("Safety at Home"), cooking ("Ken Woo Can Cook"), and cabaret performances ("Sing Sing Sing", "Carmen"), become extremely boring. The final resolution is unsatisfactory and somewhat belabored.

Lesson Number 4: Characters need characterization

Fourthly, the characters of sitcoms are consistent, static, cardboard. This is a potential weakness when transplanting them from screen to stage. Unfortunately Phua Chu Kang the musical failed to add extra dimensions to the characters. There was no significant character arc during the course of the show.

Lesson Number 5: Lyrics need to be refreshing

Fifthly the lyrics are trite, cliched, and unimaginative.
Take for example Chu Kang's song:

If I have you
If I have you
We can rebuild
Our castle in the sky
You're my strength, my light
Guide me through the night
If all I ever do is spend my life with you
We can make it through
If I have you

Lesson Number 6: Music is king

Sixthly the music is a great let-down. The melodies are largely functional and instantly forgettable. Far too often the songs are forced in, just for the sake of a song. The placement has not been considered carefully, and it does not advance the plot or enhance characterization. The arrangement is average and boring.

Lesson Number 7: Choose the best environment you can afford

Finally the venue of the Indoor Stadium is quite unsuitable for a musical. The stadium is too large (total capacity 10,000), the seating unsatisfactory, and the acoustics are abysmal. Screens showing the dialogue and lyrics in Chinese flank the stage. It might have been better to have English words as well, because one could not hear the song lyrics too clearly.

What were the good points about the show?

Unfortunately, they were few and far between. Yes, the marketing had been quite effective, and most people in Singapore knew that the show was on. There were a few good jokes, but the emphasis is on the word "few". The dialogue was largely in Singlish. The acting of Gurmit Singh and Tan Kheng Hua was quite good. The scene when Gurmit lost everything was quite touching. No, sadly I cannot think of any other redeeming features.

In Conclusion

I honestly wanted Phua Chu Kang the Musical to succeed. Already I smelt a whiff of trouble when I noticed that the bookwriters were uncredited. My greatest dismay about the show is that it may reinforce the public's already low regard of Singapore musicals. It will make it far harder in future to attract an audience to watch a local production. Sorry, one star out of four is already quite generous. My belated advice is "Don't play play!"