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Chang and Eng


Chang and Eng

Reviewed by Stephen Chen Shengfang (1997)

Music and Lyrics: Ken Low
Book: Ming Wong
Director: Ekachai Uekrongtham
Choreographer: Mohd Noor Saman
Year: 1997

Once in a while, there comes a Singapore production that renews my faith in local musical theater. Chang and Eng is one of them.

Based on the life of a pair of siamese twins of the same name, Chang and Eng is a triumph for Action Theatre, whose first musical Corporate Animals left much to be desired. The sets were really good and relied on scrims and trucks to achieve its many set changes although it was not up to the par of Sing to the Dawn which had a wonderfully evocative scenic design. Mohd Noor Sarman has done a much better job with the choreography than with Corporate Animals. However, his choreography tends to be rather repetitive and stilted and is extremely fond of ending with a symmetrical tableaux. After a while, it gets pretty tiresome. Maybe I am biased but I have seen the choreography of Jerome Robbins, Bob Fosse, Michael Bennet, Tommy Tune, Susan Stroman and Graciele Daniele and I know what good choreography is and what is merely adequate.

Ken Low deserves an award for his score. He has written an extensive and varied score which appeals to both my "arty" side and my vulgar "melodic" side although the CD containing the musical selections fail to do it justice. His score showed a maturity in thematic development which was not apparent in his work for Corporate Animals and had some fine comic moments such as "The Grand Midwife of the West" interspersed with touching ballads like "From Now On" and "Mai Phen Rai". This is the possibly the only Singapore musical so far whose score is not overly ballad heavy. However, his words sometimes don't sit well on the music such as the awkwardly phrased line "your excellency" in "the Summon" but those are minor gripes in a largely competent score.

Chang and Eng begins with the brothers' first public appearance in America and we are propelled into their past by means of flashback. As children, the brothers were taunted by other children and blamed as the cause of the cholera outbreak by superstitious villagers. However, their mother gives them the strength to continue their lives and they grow up and become rather successful businessmen selling duck eggs. They are unexpectedly summoned by the King of Siam to appear before him. The brothers catch the attention of the visiting Captain Abel Coffin who brings them to America. After being exhibited across America and Europe, the brothers call it quits when they reach the age of 21 and declare their independence from Captain Abel. However, Captain Abel has cheated the twins and they do not have enough money to return to Siam. Instead, they settle down in North Carolina and become naturalized United States citizens. They meet two sisters, Adelaide and Sarah Yates, fall in love, marry despite the community's objections and go on to father twenty-one children. However, time widens the personality differences between the twins and their desire to lead separate lives grows stronger, fueled by the domestic quarrels between their wives and children. The American Civil War bankrupts the twins and they unwillingly return to make public appearances to support their family. However, the public ridicules them and Chang becomes partially paralyzed by illness. In the final scene, Chang finally succumbs to his illness and Eng dies shortly of heartbreak.

The trouble with Chang and Eng is it does not quite pack the emotional wallop its story should give. The reason is the sense point of the musical (the twin's desire to lead separate lives) is not given or developed until in the Third Act. It would be much better if Ming Wong, the librettist, hinted at this desire constantly during the first two acts so this revelation does not become the rather unrealistic denouement in the Third Act. Without the constant foreshadowing in the first two acts, the Third Act seemed like a separate piece by itself with no direct connection to the previous acts. The curtain could have fallen after Act 2 where the twins declare their own independence and the audience would not have missed anything. In fact, I disliked the Third Act because it was full of book problems. Not only was it too short to develop the sense point completely, it had "The Grand Midwife of the West" a comic number which should be moved to a much earlier slot in the musical as this comic insertion distracts us from the Third Act, slowing it down, thus weakening the final curtain. The eleven o'clock number slot was taken up by "Divided", a song about the Civil War which is totally out of place. The end result was the third act moved at a leisurely pace instead of propelling the audiences toward the final curtain and making the twin's death look mawkishly melodramatic.

The large cast sing well and four of the performers,Patrick Gallo, Pipa Birkbeck, Kathleen Coles, and the actress playing the twin's mother (her character is strangely not listed in the program), stand out with their exceptional singing. Sitting in the front row, I can hear their wonderful projection and phrasing even though they had been body-miked. However, I found Sing Seng Kwang, who portrays Eng, a weak link in the cast due to his propensity for putting a Singaporean accent on his lines (which is especially jarring when the rest of the cast speaks in modulated tones) and he has an annoying tendency to screw up his face to look constipated.

Chang and Eng is a wonderful musical and is scheduled for a rerun in August 1997. If you have missed it the first time round, be sure to catch it in August.

Verdict : Excellent


Chang and Eng

Reviewed by Matthew Lyon (2001)


Rating: *** (out of five stars)

It's back. Singapore's favorite Thai-centric, Filipino-starring, "home-grown" uber-musical has dragged itself - via a mini-performance in Fort Canning Park and a posh CD launch at Waterloo Street - onto the stage at Kallang to begin its latest, most anticipated run and to recount for us one more time the life story of the very first Siamese twins.

As soon as Martin Lane (playing the manipulative Captain Coffin) let rip with the opening number, it was clear that this was a cast who could sing. Almost without exception, they had strong, rich voices which scarcely needed the subtle amplification they were given, and which were capable of doing justice to the technicalities of the music. What they generally lacked, though, was expression. Most singers performed with the dryness of a child asked to sing before relatives and betrayed the spirit, if not the letter of the law of performing. There were of course, exceptions - Lane at his best managed to carry off an air of menace, while Selena Tan as the twins' mother let her heart show in her voice and Natalie Bassingthwaighte as Adelaide Yates lifted her songs with her feminine but feisty vocals.

Unfortunately and through no fault of her own, she was not able to lift them to the point of being memorable. Indeed, there were only two tunes in Ken Low's score that you could conceivably walk out humming*. I suppose this is the case with all but the very best musicals, and I concede that even the forgettable songs were pleasant enough and appropriate to the action, but after a while, you began to tire of their middle-of-the-road melodies. Of the two that stood out, the tearjerker Mai Phen Rai would have held its own in any show I can think of, and Eighth Wonder of the World was a big, brassy, ballsy bonanza complemented skillfully by Iskandar Ismail's orchestral arrangement.

The lyrics, also by Low, generally managed to keep up with the better tunes, but were often prosaic and occasionally clumsy in the less accomplished ones. Not as clumsy, however, as several moments in Ming Wong's script. Even the slushiest sentimentalist would, I submit, cringe at lines like the following, probably slightly misquoted ones: Eng: "Do you ever want to be alone?" Chang: (with great feeling) "No! Yes. Sometimes!"

If the script were a football match, it would be a strung-together sequence of set pieces: penalties, free kicks and corners, with no actual free play. Obviously, the writer wanted to concentrate on the dramatic events and to tell the whole story of the twins' lives, but subtlety, development and continuity were sacrificed in the process. Even in a musical, it should take longer than ten minutes to fall in love with someone, marry them and produce twenty-one children; and the five-minute treatment of the American Civil War, was so cursory as to be pointless.

Director Ekachai Uekrongtham struggled to get the most out of limited situations. Often he struggled too hard. Although visually confident, he too eschewed all subtlety in favor of continual high emotion; but the peaks of high emotion can't be scaled all in one go - one requires both time and coaxing to get up there - and neither the script nor the on/off, binary direction provided them.

Apparently, a certain authenticity had been introduced into the dancing for this run, with specialist choreographer Narumol Smuthkochorn flown in from Thailand to help out. Although wholly unaware of traditional Thai dance, I would venture to say that it looked rather authentic to me and was certainly aesthetically pleasing. On a more general level, a fight scene (Chang and Eng vs. The Villagers!) started poorly, with no weight or timing, but warmed up into an athletic little melee and there was a good use of space in most numbers. The only problems were due to the accepted fact that physics in musicals is often unaccountably different to physics in real life. In this case, the actors suffered under the post-Newtonian law that any character pushed lightly while dramatic music is playing will slam into the ground as if hit by a 747.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the production was its sets. Well-crafted and meticulously detailed, they arrived smoothly on cue and seemingly from nowhere; and they kept on coming, so that you had to wonder where they kept them all. Realistic painted backdrops could be glimpsed behind solidly constructed foregrounds so that a real feeling of depth was produced.

It was a depth that was absent from the rest of the show. Certainly, money had been spent. It had been thrown at the production in great heaps and was clearly visible in the costumes, the cast and the professionalism of the whole affair. But all this spectacular surface went without substance, and apart from Mai Phen Rai (which was reprised enough times) the emotional heart was hardly beating.

The most extreme example of this came right at the end with the death of the twins. Chang dies first, and Eng, still attached to his corpse, scrabbles around for a couple of seconds, as if looking for a contact lens, then gives up, sings a couple of dodgy lines and lies down himself. It was an absolute cop out, a complete refusal to engage with the dramatic and horrific power of the situation and it failed utterly to evoke any emotion from this reviewer.

I sound much meaner than I intended. After all, Chang and Eng has merely fallen into the shallow glamour trap that so many musicals fall into. And perhaps people don't go to such productions for catharsis - perhaps spectacle and songs are enough. Go decide for yourself, for there are wonderful sights to be seen and impressive sounds to be heard, but don't look too hard for any feelings to be felt.

*Perhaps I'm being harsh; with a little effort, I can remember a couple more.

[This review first appeared in The Flying Inkpot.]