Dick Lee and Michael Chiang’s 1988 musical Beauty World returns for a run this year at the Victoria Theatre, from November 13 to December 12 2015.
Co-Written by Lee and Chiang and directed by the former, Beauty World tells the tale of Ivy Chan (Cheryl Tan) who runs away from her life in Malaysia’s Batu Pahat and heads to the glitzy life in Singapore, in the hopes of finding her father who abandoned her as a baby. With the help of her penpal Maryann Joseph (Frances Lee), Ivy tries to navigate the world of entertainment and cabaret politics at the club Beauty World – the last place she thinks her father worked, as that’s the name on a pendant he left her.
The singing is mostly top-notch. Tan has a crystal-clear singing voice that is sweetly melodious and she carries each song perfectly in tone and pitch.
However, the limelight stealer here has to be Ms. Lee, who not only has powerful and tonally rich vocals but is able to bring a nice charisma and charm to her witty and comedic role. Noticeably slimmed down from the last time this critic saw the actress in Fat Pig and Monkey Goes West, Ms. Lee is still a force to be reckoned with on stage, and easily steals the spotlight. She is able to deliver her lines with a genuinely natural air and portray an innocence when needed, and yet bring the spunk and attitude when Maryann comes face to face with Lulu (Jeanette Aw), Beauty World’s top Cabaret Girl.
In fact, Aw’s performance pales in comparison to Ms. Lee’s in a duet number in which the two sing off against one another. Aw’s portrayal of Lulu seems uninspired and humdrum. It wasn’t until after the musical that this critic was informed by the publicists that Aw is a big deal, as she’s an accomplished Mandarin television actress. I had no idea, as aside from the fact that I don’t watch Mandarin television shows, the character Lulu simply doesn’t stand out at all in this production.
As an aside, in a November 20 interview with The New Paper Aw addressed critics’ negative commentaries regarding her singing skills, insisting that the character is meant to be a ‘sexy singer’ and not a ‘fantastic one’. Strangely Aw seems totally oblivious to musicals that have sexy characters who are played by performers who can sing! (It’s a ‘musical’ still!) Whether or not a character is sexy or slutty or whatever, the point is the artist behind the role is still expected to be able to sing well. With such a flimsy excuse, one really does wonder if Ms. Aw has ever been to a musical herself.
According to the same article, she also seems to think her poor singing should be excused simply because she has put in a lot of effort. This critic feels like someone should tell the actress that people pay good money to see a good performance, and not to see ‘effort’ behind a bad performance. (Her statement is especially illogical given that she’s been in the limelight in the Mandarin market for some time and should know ‘effort’ plays no part in the fulfilment of audiences. Or critics.)
And she ends by saying that she only wants to listen to criticism from ‘people she respects’ like Mr. Lee, who apparently said she had sung well, and Chiang who praised her as the best Lulu ever. If Aw only wants people to reassure her that her weak voice is acceptable, then why present her skills to the public in a production that sells tickets to the masses?
But I digress. Back to the show: Another drawback is that not only is the story of Beauty World dated, predictable and uninteresting, the music is also not memorable. Lacking punch and a good hook, the melodies are just not catchy enough in today’s landscape of modern musicals. The only song that has withstood time is maybe the main theme song.
Having said that, the singing is good (aside from Aw’s), the mostly Singlish dialogue is still funny, and there is an outstanding performance by Frances Lee that makes Beauty World worth checking out.