Published on October 11, 2007
The second revival of box-office smash hit musical "Banlang Mek: The Musical" - commercial musical theatre director Takonkiet Viravan's least critically carped at work - does not engage and entertain audiences as much as its previous incarnations.
Reviewing the musical's first revival in March 2003, I wrote that the journey through the 170-minute melodrama was like taking the TGV. In comparison, picking up a Bt2,000 ticket and climbing aboard this 145-minute high-speed production is like taking a Concorde flight - once the priciest way to fly but, tellingly, now out of service - from London's West End to New York's Broadway. You pay more, arrive at your destination faster, have an experience to brag about, but get to enjoy very little in-between.
The stage version is adapted from a TV drama series that spans 53 years in the life of the ambitious Panrung, but the aspiring playwriting team have chosen an early point of attack for this Muangthai Rachadalai Theatre show, starting from the beginning and rushing through many significant events.
A more experienced playwright would have picked a starting point later in the protagonist's life, then picked out lines and songs to subtly reveal her background story. The lack of familiarity with plotting techniques shows: Most scenes in "Banlang Mek" are presented to the audience as snapshots of intense emotions, supported by quick scene-changing techniques. (The play contains more than 50 scenes, quite a record for musical theatre.)
In one scene, Panrung is turn-tabled on, sings a few lines expressing her loneliness, and is promptly turn-tabled off again to make way for her divorced playboy husband Choonam enjoying a gentleman's night with their son Panthep. The effect is rather like watching dozens of music videos while savouring an international buffet on board a Concorde flight.
Interestingly enough, while a considerable number of lines and scenes have been cut and shortened, Sukrit "Bie The Star" Visetkaew as Panrung's youngest son, Pakorn, gets a (pun-intended) meatier role. More lines, more craftily designed lighting effects, more elaborate set design, an additional song, plus a chance to show his upper body muscles in a dramatically unnecessary love scene are given to this archetypal Mummy's boy.
The acoustics in the new playhouse are truly world-standard. What that shows up for this production, though, is which TV actors can sing the radio-ready pop tunes, and which can't. In the fourth regular performance - not a press preview or a gala night - last Saturday evening, the audience realised that the singing skills of lead actress Sinjai Plengpanich, who portrays Panrung, are clearly not up to musical-theatre standard.
By contrast, veteran stage actor and professional crooner Songsit Rungnopphakhunsi shows his acting and singing prowess in the role of Kua, the chauffeur and husband frequently overlooked by Panrung. Sadly, his character is neglected by the playwriting team and the director, with many of his lines having been cut from the play. Nonetheless, he deservedly received the loudest applause from the ticket-buying audience on the night.
That was probably down to the truth and sincerity of Songsit's performance. While other first-time stage actors, Sukrit, and Kalaya Jirachaisakdecha in the role of Panwad among them, occasionally turned full-face to the audience, trying to show, and throw, their emotions directly to us, Songsit was more self-contained, concentrating more on his scene partners and the situations than anything offstage. For drama, it's so often the case that "less is more".
This "show all and tell all in 50 plus scenes" musical tried hard to make the audience cry, but eyes in the house remained stubbornly dry. When the Thai movie melodrama "The Letter" was released, a small pack of tissues came with each ticket - and the audience actually used them. Here, "Banlang Mek" souvenir tissues - available for Bt20 a pack at the theatre shop - weren't selling too well.
Another interesting addition to this revival is the English surtitles shown on side screens during all weekday shows. Many Thai audience members are wondering why these visual distractions are necessary, as very few expats and tourists are going along to performances. Perhaps the show's producer feels that if a movie like "The Bodyguard 2" can be shown with English subtitles, then why not "Banglang Mek"?
"Banlang Mek the Musical" performs daily (except Mondays) until October 28 at the Muangthai Rachadalai Theatre at 7.30pm, with 2pm matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. After the limited run of "Cats" next month, the musical will return in December. Tickets range from Bt500 to Bt2,500 at Thaiticketmajor.com. For more information, visit Rachadalai.com.
The writer can be contacted at Pawit.M@chula.ac.th.