Double trouble

Eng-Chang The Musical isn't as good as it sounds

The story of Eng and Chang Bunker, better known as the Siamese twins, is the subject of an ambitious musical by the College of Music, Mahidol University.

Eng-Chang The Musical is the second stage musical based on the life of the Thai-American conjoined twins born in 1811. In 1997, Chang & Eng, by Singapore-based Thai stage director Ekachai Uekrongtham premiered in Singapore and went on an Asian tour five years later.

Eng-Chang The Musical brings together professional and student performers, along with a team made up of a young yet accomplished director, composer, musical director, and musicians.

Music has never really been the biggest star in a Thai musical until now. Narong Prangcharoen, California's Pacific Symphony's composer-in-residence, has brought the same kind of heft in his classical compositions to the production, but seems to have purposely steered clear of catchiness. So it is rather the audacious moodiness in his music that is difficult to shake off, and the musical director Thanapol Setabrahmana and the musicians that give these compositions a powerful lushness.

Narong's compositions for the chorus unabashedly reveal his classical background, sometimes even edging the musical into the realm of opera. He is more interesting, and perhaps also more comfortable, when he expresses horror. His lighter and more romantic numbers are formulaic. But the composer also knows how to be spare, sometimes paring it down to just a piano and string instrument, to let the vocal shine.

Director Bhanbhassa Dhubthien and the design team complement the grandiosity of Narong's music with clean and suggestive touches in the first act -- the changing backdrop of abstract paintings and a silhouette-style set. But the aesthetic and directorial choices in the second act grow progressively over-the-top and illogical by the scene.

With all its bold dissonance, Narong's music occasionally poses a challenge to the mostly excellent, vocally rich chorus. It's a relief to know, though, that a solid musical ensemble is becoming easier to find.

Three sets of actors portray Eng and Chang in their youth, adolescence and adulthood -- an excessive choice. The actors in the main and supporting roles are lovely singers, but none gives as strong and memorable a performance as pop star Thanaporn "Parn" Wagprayoon does in the role of Nak, the fiercely loving mother of the twins.

But then again most of the characters are not particularly complex. Napisi Reyes' book, containing the touching theme of free will, seems to be aimed at a very young and sheltered audience. To the adult audience, it's a watered-down story of the twins.

Napisi's story does succeed in lifting Eng and Chang from being mere exotic anomalies, but she only goes as far as turning them into a symbol of self-determination, as there is only a faint sketch of their emotional lives.

In fact, for two people who are physically and vitally bound together, Eng and Chang don't seem to have much of a relationship to each other.


- Eng-Chang The Musical continues until Sunday at 7pm on Friday and Saturday and at 1pm on Saturday and Sunday, at Prince Mahidol Hall, Mahidol University, Salaya Campus.
- Tickets are 500, 800, 1,000, 1,500, 2,500 and 3,000 baht and can be purchased at www.thaiticketmajor.com. Visit www.facebook.com/engchangthemusical2015 or call 089-603 6432.

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