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Mr Beng


Mr Beng

Reviewed by 1. Chong Tze Chien 2. James Koh

Music: Iskandar Ismail
Book: Otto Fong
Director: Kok Heng Leun
Cast: Sebastian Tan (1999), Caleb Goh (2000), Beatrice Chia, Darren Seah,

1. Review by Chong Tze Chien (13 June 1999)
Rating: *** (out of five stars)

Ah Bengs seem to receive a lot of attention nowadays. With their media alter-egos such as Phua Chu Kang and Glen Ong riding on the crest of the popularity wave, it seems forthcoming that the subject of 'bengdom' will also be taking the limelight on our local stage. As Mr. Beng (Sebastian Tan) cheekily remarks in a self-reflexive moment, a supposedly elite event such as an arts festival needs Ah Bengs to construct their sets, thus commenting on the ineradicable presence of Ah Bengs.

The story charts the rise and fall of Chow Kok Beng, a young contractor who seeks to rid himself of the image of being 'beng' after having fallen in love with an English-educated rich brat, Peach (Beatrice Chia). He falls prey to Peach's urgings to change his lifestyle and to discard his 'beng' friends for the finer things of life such as dining in French restaurants and speaking better English. Unknown to him, Peach is only putting on an act of loving him so as to destroy him both financially and emotionally.

The lengths to which Peach would go to get her revenge are as disconcerting as Beatrice Chia's sometimes over-the-top posturing. Since her quest for revenge (for something so trivial) is employed as the key dramatic action, Mr. Beng's plot line suffers from a certain amount of lameness. The weakness in plot is further compounded by cardboard characterization. An English-educated member of the elite, Peach is portrayed as hopelessly evil. Even her gay friend and accomplice, Gregg (Darren Seah), is appalled by her under-the-belt-tactics and switches sides to help the bengs and lians. Cutting a lone figure on stage, Peach is reminded by Beng that for adhering blindly to anything western, she will be forever be a slave to western culture. As such, an underlying suggestion of East-West dialectic surfaces, with the west portrayed as evil and the east as good. Even as Beng rants that crows are unjustifiably prejudiced against for their outer appearance, the book written by Otto Fong is also guilty of making uninformed judgments.

That is not to say that the musical does not have its gems. Mr. Beng is a madcap concoction of a musical, whipping up a refreshing mixture of Mandarin, English and Hokkien songs. Backed by high production values, the cast was competent with strong vocal performances by Sebastian Tan and Darren Seah especially. Whatever they lacked in vocal prowess, Leanne Ong and Tan Beng Chiak (as Beng's confidant and mother respectively) made up for in the acting department. Many times, the cast brought the house down with the witty use of the Hokkien dialect. Synonymous with 'bengdom', the dialect added colour and unabashed cheekiness to the songs and dialogue. More often than not, it lifted the songs from mediocrity.

On the other hand, there were times when the Hokkien lyrics did not flow smoothly with the rest of the English and Mandarin lyrics, rendering some songs awkward. In this respect, the musical failed to stand as a truly multilingual one. The use of the Hokkien dialect was relegated to a comic device. It served no further purpose other than being a mere token of an Ah Beng's speech pattern. Thus, the notion of multiculturalism within the same race was not explored by Mr. Beng. The end result, like Ah Beng's fashion sense: clashing colors.

[This review first appeared in The Flying Inkpot.]


2. Review by James Koh (10 Jan 2000)
Rating: ***½ (out of five stars)

In his recent Saturday column in the Straits Times, Tan Tarn How attempts to demythologize the image of the beng and the current trend of romanticizing this underdog in Singaporean culture. But as he admits, in trying to understand this character, in humanizing this stereotype, he falls into the very trap that he has tried to avoid from the start. And this happens to Mr. Beng the musical as well - which tried to portray the human side to this character, and which tried to come to terms with a person who justifies his actions through physical violence. And this was done by sensitively ignoring or reducing to melodrama the tangible threat to social order that a beng is capable of and by focusing more on the social bigotry and injustices that the main character, Mr. Beng suffers from.

This is not to say that it was not an enjoyable performance. In its second run, much improvement has been made - a tighter plot, a well-crafted script that has subtler characterization, new music and a great cast. This was an engaging piece of performance, and with its slick production, catchy toe-snapping tunes, large dance numbers, abundant melodrama - it had all the trademarks of a top notch musical.

Direction by Kok Heng Leun was flawless. The use of large frames to enclose the scenes with Beng and his mother in their shop suggested the social claustrophobia of the lower classes. In a clever twist, an old woman slowly moved across the stage throughout the two-hour musical - initially ignored and unseen by all the characters on stage, she is helped by Beng at the end, thereby ambiguously hinting at a recognition of a culture which lags behind in the face of society's onward progress.

And it is to Caleb Goh's credit that he manages to pull off the main character with great conviction, hiding his vulnerability beneath a surly manner - he was a "beng" with a heart. The dependable Beatrice Chia displayed her usual perfect comic timing and portrayed her rather one-dimensional character with subtle shades of gray. Meanwhile, Li Xie stunned the audience with her amazing voice while Tan Beng Chiak was poignantly moving as Beng's mother. But the performance of the evening had to go to Darren Seah, who played the character of Gregg, the gay assistant to Beatrice Chia's character, Peach. When Peach threatens to out him to his mother, he comes to terms with his homosexuality and to be who he wants to be, in one heart wrenching song which packed an emotional punch that left the audience breathless.

But there were some minor quibbles that marred the enjoyment of the performance. One of it was that the genre of Mr. Beng, the musical, had many characteristics which subsumed any social message that it wanted to say about a system which imposes upon its people to be the same while leaving behind people who are different in the name of progress; characteristics like the tendency to give a broad sweep in characterization, its too contrived plot, its inclination to focus more on comedy than on drama (if it is drama, then the focus is on melodrama), and to simply depict the larger and more general truths of love, hope and redemption.

Moreover, Mr. Beng was more a Bildungsroman than say an examination of a Singaporean cultural stereotype. It seemed more a portrayal of the coming of age of a character that happened to be called Beng and who also happened to be positioned in the lower classes, rather than an examination of the beng mentality. Thus, at times, the musical was dangerously close in equating being poor to that of being beng. It did not help that sometimes, Beng and his ah-lian girlfriend May, did or had things that most bengs don't do or have, like having a laptop and having Beng use it to communicate with Peach through the email system.

And in trying to draw parallels between being gay and being beng through the common sense of Otherness that these two groups appear to share, the musical seemed to inaccurately suggest that being gay was as socially constructed as being beng - while in actual case, the former is an intrinsic as one's race or gender. Unless of course the musical was attempting to say that bengness is as Tan Tarn How suggests - not just an outward thing, but something inside. It is a condition of the underdog. But with its link between being poor and being beng, this was not the case.

So this is a musical which one should simply enjoy and not think too much about. Just hang up your scruples and see this as another instance of the middle class appropriating the poor for their own entertainment.

[This review first appeared in The Flying Inkpot.]