Hit local military movie Ah Boys To Men to become musical

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 16, 2014

A new recruit will be joining the original company of the rookie soldiers in the screen-to-stage adaptation of hit local military movie Ah Boys To Men.

Singer-guitarist Benjamin Kheng, 23, of the local indie band The Sam Willows, will be stepping into the boots of the spoilt recruit Ken Chow, a role originally played by Joshua Tan in the Jack Neo film.

The affable actor-singer has no issues gelling with the close-knit original cast. 

"We've had a couple of rehearsals. They're a really cool bunch of people. We knew one another as we have some mutual friends in the music circle," says Kheng at the press conference for the musical yesterday.

The original movie cast members Tosh Zhang, 23, Wang Wei Liang, 25, Maxi Lim, 25, and Noah Yap, 19, will be reprising their roles of Sergeant Alex Ong and recruits Lobang, Aloysius Jin and I.P. Man respectively in the musical.

They joke that they are planning an "initiation session" for Kheng.

"We'll 'tekan' him, have him down a few drinks," says Wang in Mandarin, referring to the popular Malay army colloquialism for putting pressure on someone.

Tan, who played Ken Chow in the movie, is unable to take on the role as he has one more semester to complete in his communications studies at Australia's Monash University.

He says: "I'm a little sad to let the role go, but I'm glad that it's going to someone as talented as Ben."

Returning the compliment, Kheng says: "I'm a big fan of the show. It'll be really hard to fill Joshua's shoes. I'll be talking to him to get pointers."

The musical, directed by Beatrice Chia- Richmond, will play at Resorts World Theatre in April.

She explains that Kheng was perfect for the role of Ken Chow: "He's of the right age. He sings well. He's a very versatile actor. He's right for the role."

Kheng is no stranger to theatre.

He has played acclaimed local singer-songwriter Dick Lee in TheatreWorks' musical National Broadway Company (2012) and also taken on multiple roles in Sight Lines Productions' staging of Jean Tay's acclaimed play Boom (2012). 

For the other recruits, the musical will be their first theatre show.

Zhang says: "We're definitely nervous. For movies, you can afford to NG, but for a musical, it's all live. If you sc*** up, you sc*** up."

NG refers to "no good" takes and Yap is quick to admit that he was the king of them - he caused 21 retakes.

The great camaraderie among the original Ah Boys has inspired the musical's songwriter-producer Don Richmond.

"I got to know the boys only last week during rehearsals. As I was watching them during their breaks, they were really playful," says Richmond, 37. "That's the same charm that they brought to the movie. Now we're switching up the songs to include that charm."

The 12 songs he is writing will have some references to army songs that Singaporean men may find familiar. It will feature lyrics in a mix of English, Mandarin and Hokkien.

The musical is highly anticipated as the two-part film helmed by Neo is Singapore's most successful movie of all time at the box office. Released in 2012 and last year, it made more than $14 million.

Its four-hour-plus running time will be condensed to 135 minutes for the musical, whose script is being penned by theatre veteran Goh Boon Teck.

nggwen@sph.com.sg