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Kampong Amber


Kampong Amber

Reviewed on 29 May 1994

Music and lyrics: Dick Lee
Book: Catherine Lim
Director: Glen Goei
Cast: Gani Abdul Karim, Glen Goei, Lily Nora Kamsani, Koh Chieng Mun, Tan Kheng Hua, Adrian Pang, Nora Samosir, Jonathan Lim
Date: May 1994
Venue: Kallang Theatre
Rating: * (out of four stars)

Kampong Amber is a musical set in the 1930s. Johnny Koh (Glen Goei) is a village boy who longs for a more exciting life outside the kampong. The village beauty Ah Choo (Lily Nora Kamsani) loves Johnny, but he does not reciprocate. One day Johnny saves the life of Mr. Lim Kia Hock (Jonathan Lim), the millionaire owner of nearby Kampong Villa, who asks the boy to work for him. There he meets Mr. Lim's daughter, Peggy (Zann Xie Yiting) and immediately falls in love with her. However, her mother (Nora Samosir) and matchmaker Bibik Molek (Koh Chieng Mun) have already decided to matchmake her with a rich suitor, Philip (Adrian Pang). Unfortunately Philip is the secret lover of Mr. Lim's second wife May (Tan Kheng Hua). In the meantime, we learn that Mr. Lim wants to buy kampong amber for redevelopment. He faces resistance from the villagers, including the kampong headman, Pak (Gani Abdul Karim). To drive the villagers away, he sets fire to the kampong.

This is a musical of missed opportunities and too many plot holes. The story line misses the opportunity of developing more fully the relationship between the protagonists Johnny and Peggy. There is no chemistry between them, and their attraction to each other is never believable. The relationship between the matchmaker Bibik Molek and the young villager is not developed into a full-blown affair, another missed opportunity. Villagers who knew about the affair between Philip (Adrian Pang) and Mr. Lim's second wife May (Tan Kheng Hua) could easily have exposed them and disrupt the Lim household. Why didn't they? It is never made clear why May would want her secret lover, Philip, to marry her step-daughter Peggy. The story has too many unanswered questions, too many loose ends.

The heart of a musical must be the music. Ultimately Kampong Amber fails because of the music. You need strong melody lines, but unfortunately Dick Lee has a knack of writing pleasant but ultimately bland music. To quote a musician friend of mine, "Dick Lee's music is instantly forgettable". This remark may be a bit unfair, because there is one song which is quite good, Bunga Sayang (Flower of Love), sung by headman Pak (Gani Abdul Karim).

Although the central element of this is a musical is the love story, quite incredibly, there is no love duet between the two main lovers, Johnny and Peggy. This oversight cannot be forgiven. Early on, it was revealed that when true love occurred, the tree would blossom. Indeed there were only a few miserable blossoms at the end, another failed opportunity, and the climax fails to resolve emotionally. But perhaps the biggest mistake of all is to have a song sung by a dying old man. This is absolutely the worst place to place a song. Not only does it detract from the potential sadness of the event, it drags the scene. Then immediately after the song, the musical ends abruptly. The song should have been cut. 

The musical arrangement is too contemporary. The show takes place in the 1930s, but the entire show does not have the feel of the 1930s. It fails to show the more languid side of life. Even the script does not make any reference to news events of the 1930s, including the presence of British rule. The kampong is far too modern, and no allusions to village life and the lack of modern facilities are made. There is not even a cock crow!

What about the casting? It is a pity that the director Glen Goei chose to star in the musical. He is not suitable for the role. He has the mannerisms and physique of a high-class university graduate, and is neither convincing as a kampong boy nor as a lover boy. Fortunately the rest of the cast is good. Special mention should be made of Koh Chieng Mun, Tan Kheng Hua, Jonathan Lim, Gani Abdul Karim, and Adrian Pang.

What are the redeeming features of the musical? Well, the set is quite well designed. The comic songs are funny. The idea of an abacus to rate the suitability of the suitors gives a nice farcical touch. Indeed the scene where the suitors are being rated is hilarious.

But in the final analysis, the musical fails because it is too superficial. It does not move me emotionally. The music is largely uninspiring. Indeed the whole musical seems to have bene written rather hastily. When village headman Pak informs Johnny that Kampong Amber is not a physical but a spiritual entity, it fails to make an impact, and sounds cliched. What a wasted opportunity!