Musical review: Ah Boys To Men: The Musical

Resorts World Theatre

Saturday April 19

With over $14 million in total box office takings, Jack Neo's two-parter Ah Boys To Men was a runaway movie hit that made stars of its fresh-faced ensemble cast. Wanting to leverage on its success is a no-brainer. The big question was how.

For those who cannot wait until Ah Boys To Frogmen comes along, this musical adaptation should be able to tide you over. But if you were not already a fan, this is unlikely to sway you.

This stage production takes the key plotlines of the national service-themed movies with a script by Goh Boon Teck, and adds music numbers by producer-songwriter Don Richmond. The Ah Boys and Men have largely returned. There is Tosh Zhang as the intimidating but good-hearted sergeant Ong, Wang Weiliang as the streetsmart Hokkien soldier Lobang, Maxi Lim as the eager beaver Aloysius Jin and Noah Yap as the lovelorn IP Man.

Taking over from Joshua Tan in the key role of spoilt brat Ken Chow is actor-singer Benjamin Kheng.

And once again, the recruits will learn to be men as they undergo basic military training.

One major advantage the musical has over the movies is its relative brevity. At two-and-a-half hours long, it moves at a brisker pace compared to the overlong flicks.

But since it is adapted from the films, some of the problems inherent in the movies remain.

Chow is still an unlikable character who is hard to get behind and his turnabout again hinges on a melodramatic accident. His section mates are still painted in simplistic strokes and are mostly just cardboard characters. And IP Man's revenge attack on a straying girlfriend (Patricia Mok trying to act cute) still feels like an overstretch.

This is where the casting is crucial. While Chow's girlfriend crisis barely registers, Kheng at least casts him in a more sympathetic light whenever he sings with his raspy and resonant voice.

And Wang, who was a breakout star in the movies, proves that his charisma translates from the big screen to the stage. Then again, this should not be surprising given his getai background.

Happily, he gets to do a solo number, Brothers Forever, here and his slightly raw rendition of the English and Mandarin number strikes just the right note.

Where the musical deviates most is probably in the inclusion of Filipino maid Leticia - but played by Chua Enlai instead of Michelle Chong, who plays a similar character on the television sketch show The Noose.

Dressed in what looks like an incongruous cosplay waitress costume, Chua milks some laughs with a Filipino accent and some funny lines.

This is in keeping with director Beatrice Chia-Richmond's broad and sometimes exaggerated tone.

As for the songs themselves, Cheong Or Geng was the best of the lot. It managed to incorporate army lingo in a natural way and gives voice to two opposing philosophies: "Cheong", which means to go all out, or "Geng", which means faking it to escape tough activities.

Also hitting the spot was the SOC (Standard Obstacle Course) rap as well as the catchy Recruits' Anthem, the theme song of the first movie written by Zhang.

The hardest song to sit through was probably the English and Mandarin duet Father And Son by Richard Low and Kheng. It is meant to evoke the wide gulf between them but it just comes across as jarring because Low is simply not a natural singer.

As far as military-themed musicals go, the most entertaining is still playwright-songwriter Julian Wong's Botak Boys. Maybe someone should bring back that for another tour of duty.

bchan@sph.com.sg

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