Time Out Singapore: ‘Beauty World’ Review

10 Dec 2015: Gwen Pew cha-cha-chas her way through the beaded curtains to delve into the sleazy ‘Beauty World’

★★★★☆

Beauty World - Alfred Phang

Photo by Alfred Phang

As one of the first locally produced English-language musicals, there’s no denying that Dick Lee and Michael Chiang’s Beauty World holds a special place in Singapore’s theatrical canon. Twenty-seven years and five stagings later, it’s still a charming production that leaves the audience both entertained and aching for a happier ending.

Set in the glamorous, seedy ’60s, the show follows 19-year-old Ivy Chan Poh Choo as she travels from Batu Pahat in Malaysia to Singapore in search of the parents who abandoned her at birth. A jade pendant is her only clue, and it leads her to the murky realm of cabaret nightclub Beauty World, where the music is hot, the girls bitchy and the drinks strong. What follows is a tale of love, jealousy and betrayal.

This production is nowhere near as glitzy as Wild Rice’s 2008 version, and instead chooses to highlight the grittier aspects of the story. This is reflected in an ingeniously designed set created by Wong Chee Wai – the cabaret nightclub oozes sleaze, while a sense of desperate loneliness lingers in the yellowed, peeling walls of all the other spaces. Within these dirty walls, a brilliant bunch of colourful characters come alive.

The cast have big shoes to fill, as Beauty World has an illustrious alumnus that includes Claire Wong and Lim Kay Siu. But fill it they do. The role of Ivy is confidently taken on by Malaysian jazz singer and actor Cheryl Tan, who succeeds in depicting Ivy’s wide-eyed naivety while holding her own as a strong-minded heroine. Her angelic voice also brings out the best in Lee’s score, still catchy after all these years. Likewise, Janice Koh, Timothy Wan and Frances Lee – who play Mummy, Ah Hock and Rosemary respectively – evoke such depth and sensitivity in their characters that it’s easy for us to root for them.

Mediacorp actor Jeanette Aw’s role as the nightclub’s queen bee, Lulu, should have been one of the biggest highlights of the show, but her performance underwhelms. She’s got the whole sexy temptress thing down pat, and yet she never comes across as either vicious or tragic. Her big scene takes place right at the end, but she is unable to convey the full spectrum of emotions and bring home the full weight of the moment. She sobs, but somehow, her tears just don’t say enough.

Still, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable riot of a show. It’s not one that leaves you satisfied – it is, after all, set in a world where beauty is only skindeep – and a trail of broken dreams is left hanging in the air. But hey, life is a cabaret, old chum, so come to the cabaret.

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Time Out Singapore: Dick Lee

As Dick Lee celebrates his 40th anniversary in the entertainment scene this month with a revival of his 1997 musical, Hotpants, Gwen Pew chats with him to look back at his glittery career.

Dick Lee 40th Anniversary

30 Jul 2014: Forty years is a long time, and a lot can happen during that period. For showbiz veteran Dick Lee, who turns 58 this month, however, things have by and large remained unchanged. ‘Forty years ago, I was having a blast designing, writing songs and putting shows together,’ he tells us. ‘And now… I’m doing exactly the same thing!’ That’s not to say that he’s still where he started at all those decades ago, though; indeed, we can think of few other local artists who have had such an illustrious and successful career across multiple disciplines.

Lee dropped out of school at 16 and began his life in entertainment by taking part in various talent shows with his siblings. Making it a point ‘to know all there is to know’, as he puts it, his determination and passion paid off when he went on to write hundreds of songs, such as the catchy ‘Mustapha’ from his critically-acclaimed 1988 album The Mad Chinaman and Kit Chen’s 1998 National Day favourite, ‘Home’, as well as musicals, including household titles like Beauty World (1988) and Fried Rice Paradise (1991).

When he first started out, he remembers Singapore’s arts scene as a very different landscape. ‘I only recall Neptune Theatre and Tropicana nightclub, both of which had topless cabaret shows back then! There was the occasional arts performance brought in by legendary impresario Donald Moore, who was rumoured to be a spy. I remember particularly the Bolshoi Ballet at the Old National Theatre,’ he recalls, but also added that ‘the local music industry that thrived in the ’60s was killed off in the ’70s by the “cleaning up” of Singapore, the introduction of NS, etc, so it was pretty dire. One could only play in bars or take part in talent shows. I did both.’

From his first fashion show in 1973, for which he ‘designed the clothes, wrote the music and directed’, to his first performance in Tokyo in 1990 and ‘floating over the Old National Stadium in a balloon during the National Day Parade I directed in 2002’, the Cultural Medallion recipient has plenty of memories to look back on today. But aside from music and theatre, he has also dabbled in fashion and food – his restaurant MAD (Modern Asian Diner), which was styled after his Mad Chinaman moniker, closed its Singapore outlet earlier this year, opening one in Jakarta instead. More recently, he has also showed off his skills as a visual artist by debuting some of his drawings and paintings at Galerie Belvedere (some of which can be viewed there this month). When we asked him whether he’s got more secret skills hidden up his sleeves, he replies ‘I’m afraid that’s all’ – before going on to reveal that he’s preparing to direct his first movie, which begins filming in January next year.

To mark his showbiz milestone anniversary this month, he will be staging the first revival of his 1997 musical, Hotpants. Set in the golden age of the 1970s, the story is centred on a trio of friends – and their mothers – as they attempt to deal with various family members, rivals and a common love interest, all while trying to make it big through the inter-school talent show. ‘The ’70s is an era that’s very special to me, as that was when I decided to follow my heart and do what I still do today,’ explains Lee. It stars a hot, young cast comprising radio DJ, actress and newly-minted Dim Sum Dolly Denise Tan as leading lady Connie, and Dwayne Tan as her husband Alfie; they are joined by Nikkie Muller, Singapore Idol alumni Tabitha Nauser and Joakim Gomez amongst others. ‘I’ve removed some songs and added a few more, as well as tightened the script,’ says Lee. ‘But most importantly, I’ve still retained the atmosphere of innocence and charm.’

On top of the movie and Hotpants, Lee is currently also preparing for this year’s National Day Parade – which he is directing – working on three new musicals, as well as a bunch of other projects that are part of the SG50 celebrations. Happily, he’s still living it up and loving it all: ‘I feel blessed to have been on my journey, and thankful that I followed my heart at every crossroad and turning point,’ he concludes. We look forward to many more decades of great shows, great tunes and great times from him.