Tale of Two Brothers

There were heart-breaking moments of tears, as well as heart-warming splatters of laughter. A great script with superb acting and beautiful music had weaved together an extraordinary story of the Siamese twins Chang and Eng.

When the three-hour long musical reached its finale, the auditorium at lstana Budaya was deafeningly silent. As the cast came out, the audience rose to their feet and cheered, giving a fitting standing ovation.

This was not a West End or Broadway production, but a Singapore Action Theatre’s work piece conceptualised, produced and directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham. The music and lyrics were by Malaysian Ken Low.

This moving and enlightening presentation of the life of the first documented pair of Siamese twins was based on the life of the two brothers who literally had been ‘stuck’ together from birth to their dying day. The protagonists Eng and Chang played by Robin Goh and RJ Rosales respectively shone with powerful acting that made up for their mediocre vocals.

And Chang & Eng the musical took us through an extra-ordinary and wonderful journey back two hundred years where medical science did not allow them to go separate ways.

The beginning of the Act saw the audience being brought back to the year 1829, when the avaricious Captain – Abel Coffin (Troy Sussman) brought the teenage twins to America and dubbed them ‘The Eighth Wonder of the World’. They were exhibited as freaks to a gawking Western crowd.

The story then unfolded ten years earlier to the twins’ childhood days, when children taunted and mocked them as ‘monsters’ and their parents called them the· bad omen’ of their village. Protecting them was their loving mother Nok, played by Selena Tan with outstanding vocals and great acting skills.

Although joined together as one, the characters of the brothers could not be more different. Chang, the elder twin, was the leader with an optimistic and courageous character while Eng, the mellow and more pessimistic twin was in turn influenced by his sibling.

We were happy to see that ten years on, some of the villagers, especially the young women, had taken to the twins who sold duck eggs for a living, and somehow gave them celebrity status.

Then came the turning point of their lives, when the twins were summoned to the Siamese King (Litoo Villareal) who followed the unscrupulous American captain’s advice to sell the twins overseas to give them a better life and fame, and bring fame to the kingdom of Siam too. After a couple of years in New York, the brothers eventually broke free from the slavery they were bounded into and started their own lives there.

As the first half of the show showed the formation years of the twins, the second half was a touching love story where Chang and Eng met and fell in love with American sisters Adelaide and Sallie Yates, played by real-life siblings Mary-Anne and Anne-Marie McCormack.

This was eleven years later in North Carolina, when the chance meeting hooked up the two couples. It was a struggle, especially for the younger sister Sally (imagine a woman always sharing two men in bed!) But in this case, love conquered all.

And the courtship part was realistic too – romantic and amusing at the same time.. We saw one brother try to completely shut off while the other was wooing the woman of his life. Later, we also got a glimpse of the problems faced by the wives and the family. Together with 21 children between the two pairs, much anxiety and heartache were experienced by the two sisters and the brothers too.

The end of the Civil War in America also saw the end of the twins’ lives. The ailing Chang on his deathbed was comforted by Eng, who shortly after followed his brother’s fate. The ending scene was the most poignant and touching I’ve experienced in a theatre, and tears began to weld in my eyes.

And the song with the haunting lines: ‘They might think you are different and strange, but you are special in my eyes’, sung by Selena Tan, showed the depth of the mother’s love. It also concluded this wonderful musical.

Together with Troy Sussman, and Anne-Marie McCormack, Selena Tan’s singing provided the icing on the cake.

The musical was first premiered in Singapore at the Festival of Asian Performing Arts in 1997, directed by Ekachai Uekrongtham. Today Chang & Eng is Singapore’s longest-running musical, and was shown in Beijing, China. This time round, this new version of the musical opened in Singapore in 2001 and garnered greater critical acclaim.

Even the West End Theatre of London has expressed interest in buying the musical but Urkrongtham and team apparently hope to bring the musical there themselves.

Indeed, ‘Chang & Eng – the Musical’ is a production of world-class standards that promises a triumph for Asian theatre an international cast and crew including Singaporeans, Thais, Filipinos, Australians, Americans as well as Malaysians.

With the help of the costumes, dances and songs the script writer did a marvelous job packing 40 years of the twins’ life story in two and half hours without ever a dull moment.

I would say one can’t fail to be touched watching this musical. Professional acting and music aside, it was a story of strong brotherhood bond, of sacrificial love, and above all, triumphant human spirits that achieved the unattainable against all odds.


First Published: 05.03.2002 on Kakiseni

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