Dark, mysterious but exuberant, Beauty World, directed by Dick Lee, is the story of a girl named Ivy Chan searching for her past. The re-staging of the 1988 play by Michael Chiang exhorts viewers on an existential inquisition into the relationship between past and present. Audiences are also treated to an impassioned power struggle and an intense battle between purity and impurity. Beauty World is musical theatre by genre and elegantly weaves song, music, dance and dialogue together to explore pertinent concepts like beauty and love.
Ivy Chan (Cheryl Tan) introduces the play by mulling innocently, in song, over a conundrum she faces. This is immediately contrasted by a second salacious scene where the traditionally favourite “Beauty World – Cha Cha Cha!” is accompanied by slinky dancing. As the show progresses, Ivy assumes a more important role by injecting a refreshing rebellion into a setting numbed by debauchery and greed. Throughout the first half of the show, various characters in the cabaret describes her as ‘different’, although none can articulate what this means. Only in the middle of the show when Ivy quotes Oscar Wilde do we begin to have a clearer understanding of this difference. Sharing with Ah Hock, a Cabaret assistant, as they stared into the ‘beautiful’ starry night sky that “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”, Ivy challenges the traditionally more primal definition of ‘beauty’ that has been held in the cabaret. Cheryl’s masterful performance as Ivy reflects also, an astute directorial decision because her soulful voice and remarkable strength in acting have propelled her to be the vital anchor of the cast.
Yet, purity does not always prevail. The cabaret is dominated by various powerful figures, not least of which is Lulu (Jeanette Aw), who views Ivy as a dangerous challenge to her stronghold of influence. The play is developed by this tension between Ivy and Lulu, as power is shifted from one to another (even if unintentionally by Ivy). The choice of costumes also creates a visual experience of this tension, with the dark and fiery red sported by Lulu juxtaposing the bright and modest dresses Ivy wears. In an earlier part of the show, Ivy accidentally dons Lulu’s clothing and this prompts the audience to consider two important questions. First, does this foreshadow a potential transition from purity to impurity for Ivy? Second, what will become of these two characters? Indeed, throughout the show, both characters’ dominant personalities create an ongoing tension that sets us up for extraordinary answers. Yet, they would not be so surprising if we consider how similar both characters are as they strive to achieve their goals at all costs. Unlike Ivy however, Jeanette’s portrayal of Lulu will not be remembered for the singing, although she successfully uses her aptitude for convincing acting to make up for that.
Other elements of the play that have indispensable roles include the band as well as characters like Frankie, Rosemary, Sergeant Mustafa, the other cabaret staff and the tycoons. They form the backbone of the show, creating a holistic experience of a critical period of time in Singapore’s history. The ongoing power struggles or the battle between purity and impurity would not have been significant if there were no other conflicting and vested interests. The elaborate lightings and the realistic props and sets also go a long way in making the show believable. As a result of the harmony of these elements, the show becomes an important cultural education for a different generation and a walk down memory lane for older Singaporeans.
Yet, at its heart, it is the exploration of the relationship between past and present that truly defines Beauty World. The setting of a cabaret is one that brings the staff together not out of choice, but because of past circumstances. Even the well educated Ivy established that there is no other way. Individuals with different biographies meet at this common point, but some intersections are more complex than others. It is these secretive and intricate layers of individual stories that ultimately keep audiences at the edge of their seats. The show teaches us that history can never be fully known, but what can be known is not always disclosed. Some stones might be better left unturned, but as the outstanding Ivy would demonstrate throughout the show, our identities are very much rooted in our past.
Written By Tan Yang Long
All Photos Taken By: Alfred Phang