With upcoming plans for a seventh season later in 2005, Singapore's hit sitcom, Phua Chu Kang (PCK), will make history as the longest-running sitcom in Singapore. Not contented with dominating television screens, Phua Chu Kang embarks on its second musical outing and first stage debut. Unlike the first PCK Musical which was televised as part of the President's Star Charity 2000 to raise funds for charity, Phua Chu Kang The Musical at Singapore's Indoor Stadium has loftier goals -- To be a "world-class Broadway style musical", as proclaimed on its official website.
Sadly, while having grand ambitions is commendable, a musical like this would be brutally savaged on any world stage.
Entering the Singapore Indoor Stadium, audiences are greeted with the sight of rickety stadium seats half of which do not face the stage. The top-end $100 seats that do face the stage are unsecured, plastic, semi-cushioned seats which look like what you would find at any function room, except that these seats have an inbuilt cup-holder. The main arena has two large plasma screens which inundate early birds with the cacophonic sounds of gratuitous advertisements from sponsors in heavy rotation. These same plasma screens display Chinese subtitles during the course of the musical. Unsatisfied with relentless attacking audiences' tympanic membranes with messages from sponsors, a look around the Indoor Stadium sees numerous banners advertising United Overseas Bank's FlexiDeposit, the Best Deki Card, Kenwood Appliances and Valuair - The Smarter Way To Fly. Audiences who focus solely on the stage are not spared as well. Corporate logos adorn the top of the $1.5 million stage set depicting a typical Housing Development Board (HDB) estate.
Nothing among the sets suggests that this musical costs the $3 million continuously boasted in its publicity material. The sets look fresh, new and - dare I say it - cute, but lacks any panache or wow-factor which the producers should have been going for with a set budget so huge. Cables hanging props and parts of the set are ostensibly visible and scream out about an expenditure gone horribly wrong, rather than remind audiences that this is Singapore's biggest staged musical.
Some interesting questions arise over the staging. No understudies seem to be allocated to the performers and while this is understandable seeing that the actors portraying the characters are so ingrained into the minds of fans that any changes would be catastrophic, it begs the question as to what contingency plans are in place should a leading actor fall ill. Sadly, no answers are provided in the programme.
The weak story itself collapses like a renovated house built on wobbly soil. Phua Chu Kang (Gurmit Singh)'s 40th birthday is approaching but none of his family members seem to remember despite his numerous hints. To complicate matters, a long-lost brother, Phua Chu Kok (Roy Ngerng) turns up and a rapper Feng Shui Man (Sheikh Haikel) reinforces a nightmare that Chu Kang had been having - By predicting that Chu Kang would die before his 40th birthday. Convinced that he is going to die, Chu Kang signs a will entrusting his assets to his long-lost brother who is secretly working in cahoots with his nemesis - the villainous Franklin Foo (Lim Kay Siu). The will turns out instead to be a contract handing over Chu Kang's assets regardless of whether he dies or not but just as it seems that Franklin had finally destroyed Chu Kang's life and career, he suffers a heart attack. Chu Kang saves him and Franklin tears up the contract. Everyone lives happily ever after, but not before Franklin vows to destroy Chu Kang some day again.
For a comedy, this premise is so laughably trite that it is no longer funny. One key ingredient that has endeared the Phua Chu Kang sitcom to the public is that it portrays a relatable family of heartlanders. With a far-fetched plot with so many logical inconsistencies, the believability and appeal of Phua Chu Kang is quickly hurled out of the window. Firstly, while the Feng Shui Man must have been paid by Franklin Foo, there is no way that either of them would have known about Phua Chu Kang's portentous dreams. Secondly, the Feng Shui Man makes three predictions - That Chu Kang would find his long lost brother; that a heavy object would fall on him; and that he would die before his 40th birthday. The second prediction never came true because Chu Kok pushed Chu Kang out of the way and saved him. Why then did Chu Kang become even more convinced that the third would come true as well? Thirdly, the concept of signing a will giving a long-lost brother Chu Kang knew for barely a day his entire estate and fortune rather than his main family sounds ludicrous by itself. For a close family unit like Phua Chu Kang's which audiences are so accustomed to, this scenario seems even more unfathomable. Fourthly, even if by some stretch of imagination, we assume that everything Chu Kang's wife, Rosie (Irene Ang) owns is in Chu Kang's name, it is incomprehensible that everything that Chu Kang's brother, Phua Chu Beng (Pierre Png) and Chu Beng's wife, Margaret (Tan Kheng Hua) owns belongs to Chu Kang as well. When Chu Beng was humiliatingly forced to remove his worn watch to give to Franklin Foo, multiple eyes in the Indoor Stadium rolled upwards in unison. Lastly, after building the story to the end where Chu Kang had finally lost to his arch-rival, Franklin, it seemed like such a cop-out that Franklin suddenly suffered a heart attack and was willing to give up the contract after Chu Kang saved him. To make the plot even more incredulous, Franklin resolved to destroy Chu Kang in future again mere minutes after giving up the papers that brought him to the brink of his future goal.
If the flimsy plot elicited cringes, the staging aspect did not make up for any inadequacies. For all the casting talents that the brochures regularly boast about ("international directors and 100 of the best local and foreign talents" including a 24-dance troupe from China, the "best dancers in the region" and a 48-member orchestra also from China), they could not find a boy to play the young Phua Chu Kang. While her vocals are beautiful, Sheila Tan makes no attempt to sing like the grown-up version of Phua Chu Kang talks, indicating that Chu Kang's spoken English must either have degenerated so much over time or that the writer just simply did not care about any plot lapses.
Somewhere along the line, the producers must have forgotten that Broadway or West End dance sequences actually enriched a scene, advanced the plot or served some purpose like a set change. The dance routines in Phua Chu Kang The Musical appear out of nowhere and do not appear to serve any purpose other than give the dancers a chance to wear different dresses and hint to the paying audience where the expenditure for the musical is going. The lounge singer / ballet dancer / kung fu by children segment in particular seems out of place and unnecessary.
Most appalling is how National Education issues are worked into the musical. While it is widely acknowledged that the musical is held in conjunction with Singapore's 40th birthday and that many governmental agencies back the production of the musical, hearing the cast break out in a rendition of "Singapura" at the curtain-call has some rather out-of-body effect. Somewhere within the musical, the writers also managed to work in the five components of Total Defence and first aid into the dreadful song "Safety At Home". Ironically, for all the Civil Defence information, the cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) which Chu Kang used to save Franklin was done wrongly. Chest compressions were too weak, Chu Kang's arms were not straightened, there was no proper seal when the two respiratory blows were given and worst of all, Chu Kang was conducting the chest compression at a very awkward angle while seated near Franklin Foo's head. You would have expected a musical which had been such a strong advocate of understanding Civil Defence to get an important first aid treatment like CPR right for some authenticity. The erroneous technique used in the CPR totally negated whatever message the producers had hoped to send out in the previous Total Defence segment.
It also seems strange that for a musical that is publicly endorsed by numerous governmental organisations, no governmental agency seemed to pick up on the numerous improper use of the English language through the colloquially spoken "Singlish" language in the script. Lines like "Today, you really insult me, ah" go directly in conflict with the Singapore Government's recent Speak Good English Campaign.
There is a certain level of audience interaction as seen in the Feng Shui Man segment where Sheikh Haikel walks down into the audience with some dancers and ad-libs jokes and hands out lucky four-digit numbers. Initially starting off to be interesting, the segment turned out to be too protracted by the end. Incidentally, it was interesting to note that Haikel did not stay for the curtain call in this evening's performance.
The music was written by Edmund Ooi and international music director, Peter Casey with the lyrics by Edmund Ooi, Catherine Casey, Vivienne Lin and Adeline Tan. Unfortunately, with repetitive, yet forgettable, melodies and banal, unengaging lyrics, this musical aspect accentuates the overwhelming flaws already pre-existent in the musical.
Performer-wise, it seems that Gurmit Singh is the only performer who is able to stir some semblance of audience support during the course of a musical where the applauses always seemed too forced. Opposite Irene Ang in the duet "If I Can't Have You", he actually sounds amazing as a singer but this probably says more about Ang's appalling delivery than Singh's vocal ability. Lim Kay Siu does his best as the dastardly Franklin Foo but is let down by the dismal plot. Tan Kheng Hua tries a little too hard as Margaret and with the sound amplifier tuned excessively loud, her voice sounds grating on a number of occasions. The rest of the cast sounds decidedly average, hardly a good sign for a musical with such grand ambitions. The only exception to the average singing is Ian Fong who plays Ken Woo The Chef. Fong sings very well but there is only so much he can do with lyrics like "For a start, have some cocktail for your guests. Mmm yum yum yum!" and lines which manages to inter-space names of sponsors inside the song. No one seemed to tell the lyricist that Ken Woo does not rhyme with Kenwood -- One key sponsor for Phua Chu Kang - The Musical.
For a musical that relies heavily on pulling in families ($12 tickets were eventually sold to patrons under the age of 18 years when they are accompanied by one adult), no warnings of strobe lighting was given at the ticket sales office, in the programme or at the entrance to the indoor stadium. Ushers were stationed at the entrance where they inexplicably forbid audiences from bringing drinks bought from the official 7-Eleven booth just outside the arena into the main arena area. Peculiarly, five metres away from the entrance inside the arena, a couple of 7-Eleven employees hold onto trays and hawk the exact same drinks sold outside.
I hold nothing against the Singapore Indoor Stadium. However, this 10,000 seating capacity arena is more suited for a WWE Wrestling tour than a stage musical. For a show that obtains so much sponsorship from corporations and obviously the government and for a venue that is hardly conducive for a theatrical experience, ticket prices for this local musical seem extremely badly thought out. With the large number of free tickets given out by sponsors in the promotions, it is not difficult to believe that majority of the audience had entered with comps rather than by parting with their cash for something so mediocre. Even then, quite a few families were seen leaving the Indoor Stadium during the interval.
The level of corporate sponsorship that Phua Chu Kang - The Musical has amassed is highly commendable but this example serves as a good reminder of how over-indulgence can go horribly wrong. Tweaking lyrics to include names of sponsors shows hints of desperation. Having large cardboard standouts of Symantec's products (Norton Anti-Virus, Internet Security, SystemWorks, etc) sitting snugly on the top of the living room cabinet between two antique vases pushes the envelope a tad too far. While it is good that programmes for the musical are sold at a very affordable price to audiences ($2 for a booklet which includes the usual synopsis and cast information in addition to complete lyrics for the entire musical), Phua Chu Kang - The Musical falters badly for the things that truly matter. In many ways, the musical boasted so much to the public but ultimately delivered so little.
In the worst case scenario, this could prove to be
the death knell to any future Singaporean musical productions.
Reviewed on 22 June 2005