The Scenic Bridge of Ipoh

There is always that moment of trepidation when a curtain rises on a musical for the first time. If the impact of the first scene is less than a sonic boom, it muffles the rest of the musical. What more an all Malaysian musical written by two untried and untested neophytes? It is the rare one that lives up to the promise of their glossy literature.

Broken Bridges, running at KLPac – Pentas 1 right now, opens humbly enough with a beggar woman (Fang Chyi) shuffling quietly onto stage. Then the sepia toned frames, doubling as backdrops, are whisked apart as the townsfolk enter singing “Lively town, lovely town, Where it’s bound to astound… ” From the sweet solo strains of Fang’s voice as she wanders the streets at dawn to the Ah Sohs going, “how’s the kalian, not so nice, get some tau foo,” to the men joining in with their baritone, the opening number builds to a big, rousing broadway finish, and nicely segues into the introduction of the protagonists.

Set in Ipoh of 1959, Ming and Leong are teens who have just completed their Senior Cambridge. Leong is content to eventually take over his father’s business and make a brand out of Chan Durians. But Ming, son of a coffee shop owner, Wong, is full of dreams and is chomping at the bit to leave Ipoh and make a name for himself.

Chan and Wong, the boys’ fathers, however have other plans. They waste no time in arranging the marriage of Ming to Chan’s 17 year old daughter, Siew Yee. With great reluctance, Ming goes on a date with her. The three aunties, Yat Soh, Yee Soh, and Sam Soh (although she has a Chinese title, she is, in Muhibbah Malaysia, an Indian), coach the adolescent girl in the arts of attracting a man (men are like char siew pau, “white and clean on the outside but red and meaty on the inside”).

When the two youths return from their date, the fathers joyfully announce their intentions much to Ming’s dismay. It is this conflict of interests that drives the plot to its unexpected but appropriate end.

Likeable small town folks

Broken Bridges, as directed by Joe Hasham and produced by Datuk Faridah Merican, is structured in typical musical theatre style from start to end and makes no pretensions to be anything other than a piece of great entertainment. And as entertainment, it naturally stars some heavy hitters. Douglas Lim, of Kopi Tiam fame leads the cast of very seasoned veterans in the role of Ming. Other notables include the cabaret comedienne Joanne Kam Poh Poh as Yat Soh and popular TV actor Tony Eusoff as Ringo. Choir trainer Colin Kirton plays Ming’s father, Wong. Ming’s best friend Leong is played by Ho Soon Yoon and his father, Chan, is played by comedian Monti.

The leads have their coming timing down pat and the one-liners are delivered with much aplomb. The audience is naturally drawn to the likable small town folks. The loyal friend is played to great effect by Ho Soon Yoon who injects his performance with empathy, and frivolity. Douglas Lim PERFORMS — as opposed to just SINGS — his role to perfection. His theatricality, the larger than life gestures, and the emotive singing are perfect for musical theatre. And Yes, Douglas Lim can sing!

Kudos to Colin Kirton who acts with such nuance that although he plays this tradition bound father who is overly strict with his son, you feel for his pain and bewilderment.

Yat Soh, Yee Soh, and Sam Soh, the dragon ladies, played by Joanne Kam Poh Poh, Chan Wen Li, and Pangasaanii G, add much colour to the fabric of lpoh society as portrayed in Broken Bridges. The trio are reminiscent of the mice in the movie Babe. Unlike the mice however, they are active participants in the plot and sub-plot.

Do the right thing

Tony Eusoff does his usual star pirouette but his role begs more development. We don’t know enough about him for a character who is the catalyst for Ming’s decision to leave home. Same problem with Ming’s girlfriend, Mei Ling, played by Janice Yap, in the second half. She is introduced as a smart, modern girl with a penchant for reading and thinking — a stark contrast to the girls introduced to Ming by the intrepid trio of dragon ladies. Without much explanation however, she is eventually reduced to being the small town Ipoh girl stereotype. These two seem to have interesting back stories which could be explored further.

Another question mark is Ming’s argument with the townsfolk over Mei Ling’s fate. While it is obvious that the townsfolk blames Ming, his retort that it is their fault is not explored, leaving a feeling that the townsfolk have too readily accepted his judgment in the matter without any discussion. It feels glossed over, this issue of personal responsibility and how people need to do the “right thing”.

While it’s unlikely that the composer and writer are intending to create a musical with issues, it’s the issues that make a story interesting. In a sense, everything that Ming’s father was driven to do — arrange the marriage, dismiss his son’s aspirations as frivolous, and ultimately deliver an ultimatum that becomes too hard to retract — stems from his own desire for his son to be secure and protected. The issue of the father-son relationship is at the heart of this musical and to a large extent any aspect of the plot that has an impact on it deserves some exploration. For example, what does Wong think of Ringo, Ming’s cousin, for example? It’s possible that Wong despises Ringo. It’s also possible that he thinks the world of his sophisticated nephew. Would he have been more willing to listen to reason if approached by Ringo about Ming’s leaving for Kuala Lumpur?

Thankfully, however, none of these unsolved mysteries affect my enjoyment of the musical. They remain as intriguing questions that could be answered in part or in full in the next run, perhaps?

And for completely personal reasons, I think another portion deserving of more time is the cabaret boys scene. They come out looking like outtakes from a Chippendales show and before you can blink, it is over. In a musical, any excuse for a cheesy, corny, sexy number is ALWAYS welcome. Choy Le Roy, nice arms.

No pretensions

Pacing is superb. There is not one moment when the story drags. The singing is polished. The ensemble is well rehearsed by Mervyn Peters, timing is tight and the mood is nuanced. The music, directed by James Boyle, sounds obviously computerised in parts. But given the budget and the small orchestra, the music is pretty okay. Some voices sound tight and do not have the polish of Broadway performers (in a manner of compliment, I don’t think it is unfair to compare them to the industry’s best at all).

The choreography by Pat Chan is not spectacular but is nevertheless serviceable. Look out for Joanne Kam’s four-fingered instructions.

The production designers deserve special mention. Loo Jia Wei and Arica Chia outdo themselves with the clever use of mobile sets and those sepia toned photos of straits settlement shops on the hanging frame. Discordance, disharmony, and discontent are visualised by skewing the hangings and using projectors to display images of cracks.

For a musical that moves forward almost 47 years in 2 hours, costumes can be particularly challenging. But Chin Khin Yeow deserves much praise. From pleated A line skirts to the drainpipe trousers of the men, Broken Bridges is certainly well-dressed for its times.

In musical theatre, plot is secondary to the music. The music needs to be singable, clever, and able to advance the plot. No matter how cheesy or corny the plot could be, the music needs to reflect the mood of the scenes while a central theme tie the entire musical together. The opening number “Ipoh Town” seems to be the theme song but it is not reflected in the interludes. Hence it seems like the song is repeated 3 times rather than being used as a central motif binding the musical together like a ribbon on a present.

The melodies are catchy and the lyrics original. The “question and answer” format of the conflict music — with the singers “arguing” with each other — produces some of the slickest and cleverest songs I’ve heard in a long time. Look out for “Proud,” “Why,” and “No More” to catch this exciting bit of musical creativity. You will never have guessed that the composer and writer, Teng Ky-Gan and Lim Chuan Yik, are first timers.

On the whole, Broken Bridges is accessible, empathetic, and ultimately entertaining. Everything a good musical should be. It has no pretensions to be anything other than what it is. Like a good Malaysian food court, it has something for everyone. Fun songs delivered well, interesting conflict to make the audience root for the characters of their choice, poignant relationships, love, anger, and blind ignorance. In short, people will find it very easy to relate to, whether you are a child, a parent, a sibling, a best friend, or even a well meaning neighbour.

Huge claps on the back for everyone especially to Teng Ky-Gan and Lim Chuan Yik. When’s the next one coming out boys?

Broken Bridges is running at KLPac- Pentas 1, from Sat 19 Aug – Sun 3 Sep 2006.


Nigel Skelchy is from the small town of Petaling Jaya.

First Published: 24.08.2006 on Kakiseni

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