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Reviewed by James Koh

Music: Bang Wenfu
Book and Lyrics: Denise Marsh
Director and Producer: Denise Marsh
Cast: Ernest Seah, Cordelia Fernandez Lee, Juwanda Hassim,
Date: 16 Nov 2000
Venue: Jubilee Hall, Raffles Hotel

Rating: Half a star (out of 5 stars)

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 emphasized 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 Anglicized 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.

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 theater 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 a woman, and Bugis Street was a world that blurred the binaries of gender and sexuality, and (using the latest cultural psycho-babble) emphasized 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 Television Corporation of Singapore Channel 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.

[This review first appeared in The Flying Inkpot.]



Reviewed by Seow Yien Lein

Half a star (out of 5 stars)

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: Urban Redevelopment Authority'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 theater.

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 four 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.

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 favor 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 reorientation 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 Cordelia 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 theater 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.

[This review first appeared in The Flying Inkpot.]