By Cheryl Tan
“A Chinese Make Love Story.” What does that mean, exactly? The programme synopsis says the play “explores the very issue which plagues every Malaysian. When is a Chinese not Chinese enough?”
Strangely, this seems to be the tone of the musical The Girl from Ipoh (9-13, Nov 2005, KLPac). Bridget Jones meets Negaraku and acapella singing with a dash of Pygmalion, it follows the life of Mei Li (Carmen Soo) who can barely speak Chinese and is constantly criticised by her father for it. She moves to KL to try to find somewhere to belong. Along the way, things like boyfriends happen. The seven acapella singers residing in her head (the LiT Performers) provide the soundtrack for her life.
The premise itself is quite intriguing. Playwright-director Low Ngai Yuen boldly explores issues like women settling for jerks, premarital sex and the whole banana Chinese phenomenon, which I’ve never seen highlighted in theatre before (since I came to theatre anyway, which wasn’t so long ago). There are some cheap jokes, but with a difference – condoms instead of clowns.
Lee Swee Keong’s portrayal of Mei Li’s hor hee selling father who constantly berates his daughter for forgetting her Chinese identity is fun. His body language and presence communicates what he means even though I don’t understand what he actually says. Oh, LiT singer Fang Chyi has to translate Swee Keong’s Cantonese to English to her fellow muse-in-girl’s-head, and for us. That speaks to me so much! Yes, I am a banana.
Tony Eusoff shines on stage, for all of his five minutes on it. The first fantasy-love Mei Li meets is evidently the male heartthrob of the show, and he plays up the stereotype with aplomb. You can tell from the catcalls that the audience approves of this fantasy.
The costumes are very pretty, with big poofy skirts and all. Melinda Looi couture – don’t play play. The set by Caecar Chong is aesthetically pleasing, with Ipoh hawker stall on the left and strange biscotti-looking triangular things on the right, doubling as Mei Li’s KL apartment and her mind, where the singers are dwelling.
LiT. What can I say? They sing well. Despite some very minor pitch problems in the first two bars of every song, they come in on time and give an energetic performance. Their harmonies are tight and they have fun on stage. The numerous fans in the audience are not disappointed, and neither am I.
However, here’s where the play shows its inconsistencies. Once you get over how trendy and pleasant the acapella is, the songs seem to be nothing more than accompanying pictures to the script’s storybook. “Unchained melody” is weakly tied to a love-at-first-sight moment, when Mei Li literally bumps into the father of her future non-child, but the love is not really established yet, and anyway he turns out to be scum. “Doncha wish your hor fun was smooth like me” is cute, in the adorable yet ugly way. Almost superfluous. In a conventional musical, the songs really draw you into an event or a character’s emotions. Here they say to the audience, “Oh look. This is what the character is feeling. Take my word for it since you can’t feel it yourself.”
The songs do fit into the story just enough that the whole show doesn’t actually play like a LiT vehicle, but it is dangerously close to becoming like their annual performance.
At the end of the day, the script itself does not do justice to the setup. It has a narrative format in prose, which narrates the story but does not bring the audience in to what is actually happening to the characters. It’s as if the story takes place in a small glass box.
The narrator, in other words, Mei Li, always seems to say, oh, I’m going to talk about “this”, but then after that, “this” is never mentioned again. The only things that they try to really dig into are the forgetting-our-Chinese-roots issue and the girl-coming-of-age business. But neither of these really comes to a satisfactory close. Mei Li gets pregnant after her scum of a boyfriend dumps her, so she goes back to Ipoh where her father takes her back in after giving her a proper running down (basically, “I told you so!”). Meanwhile, LiT sings a male version of Il-Divo’s “Mama” called “Papa”. Tres heartwarming, except for the cringy beatboxing. Now, I’m trying to see what’s being said here. Okay, um… she realises that her family, which represents her Chinese roots, is something that she can always depend on? That Ipoh girls shouldn’t date KL boys? That you can’t run away from what you are because eventually something which you can’t handle on your own will bite you in the butt? See what happens when you don’t use proper contraceptives??
In the epilogue, Mei Li says, “The good news is, I had a miscarriage.” I was shocked, and not with awe. After all that trouble arguing with dad and claiming she doesn’t care how people looked at her, losing her unborn kid is good news? I mean, it’s a very interesting twist and perhaps if it is meant to be sardonic or something then it could have had some impact, but Mei Li seems genuinely pleased, leaving me genuinely confused.
Part of the confusion is trying to figure whether the characters are meant to be real or exaggerated. I mean, girls in KL don’t wear big poofy skirts all the time and KL bachelors don’t order French food with perfect pronunciation. Maybe these characters were meant to be unique people, adding to the already apparent romanticisation of Malaysia onstage. But if the play is set in a familiar Malaysia so that the audience can relate to it, then why are so many things unfamiliar? There are few real references to Ipoh excepting the food. It might as well be called the Girl from Insert-Kampungy-Town-Here.
I also find that the playwright has privileged the father as being the Yoda of the setup, although it’s partly his fault that Mei Li ‘lost her roots’ in the first place – he did send her to a Malay school. I feel that this could have been something more deeply examined, the nature of causality, and the moral dilemma many in this country are going through. Consequences which our parents are now facing, or not facing, for sending us to different language schools. However, it feels as if there isn’t enough time to properly draw it out and so the easiest way about is to be judgmental instead. There are many ambiguous but real life issues which the play poked its nose into, if only it poked it in properly, ’cause I would have loved to watch it and it could have made the play go down in history as something memorable. Instead the play just went down.
If the play was meant to be fluffy entertainment, then well, I guess it could be said that it did its job. There were some nice moments and I wasn’t begging to get out like I was when watching some other local musicals, so that’s good. Some shows aim for the top of a cliff. They jump and realise that they have not jumped high enough to reach the top, and then fall a really long, painful way. Luckily (for me as well as the cast and crew) The Girl from Ipoh manages to land scarcely on a ledge about halfway down.
Cheryl Tan has taken her vocal examination from Trinity and is now waiting for the results. She still dreams of being tall.
First Published: 17.11.2005 on Kakiseni