Winning multiple awards in the 2006 BOH Cameronian Arts Awards, Broken Bridges has just ended the first leg of its second run. A love letter to Ipoh by Lim Chuang Yik and Teng Ky-Gan (who also wrote Tunku The Musical, Adam The Musical and Paper Crane), they tried to get it off the ground for years, before it was finally picked up for its first run in 2006 by Joe Hasham. Joe Hasham reprises his role as director for the second run, selling out Pentas 1 at KLPAC for several performances, a major feat for any Malaysian production.


Leong, Ringo and Ming (all pics in this post by Kelab Shashin Fotografi KL)

The plot is pretty straightforward, with only minor tweaks from its original run. Two best friends,  Ming (Jon Chew) and Leong (Ho Soon Yoon) are thick as thieves, but with one major difference: Ming dreams of finding a life in a big city away from Ipoh and Leong is content with inheriting his father’s durian business. Ming is betrothed to Leong’s sister Siew Yee (Melissa Ong) much to his chagrin, and his cousin Ringo (Nick Dorian) from Singapore (KL in the original run) shows up soon after. Enticed by stories of the big city, Ming makes the decision to move away. This greatly upsets his father Wong (Colin Kirton) for a number of reasons, the most obvious being that Ming was supposed to marry Siew Yee, and take over the family kopitiam.

Fast forward ten years later, Ming returns to Ipoh as a hotshot contractor, with plans to tear down the market and construct a new building in its place. The vendors are either confused or incensed, caring little for the monetary compensation Ming promises. Ming happily ignores them, in love with a girl selling chee cheong fun, Mei Ling (Anrie Too). She soon becomes pregnant and her mother Cheong Soh (Teoh Siew Thung) forces her to abort the pregnancy. Things really start hitting the fan when the market vendors demand their compensation and Ming finds out that Mei Ling has died from her abortion attempt. The townsfolk drive Ming out of town, and Ming’s father Wong gives his kopitiam to Cheong Soh as a peace offering.

cheong soh

Cheong Soh and her daughter, Mei Ling

Coda: Fast forward yet another thirty years, Ming comes back to Ipoh. Wong Coffee Shop is still standing, but no longer run by Ming’s father, who died penniless. Not knowing his father’s sacrifice, Ming sips on a cup of white coffee, which no longer tastes the same.

“Jon Chew was my favourite, a brilliant piece of casting replacing Douglas Lim from the previous run”

The entire cast gave very respectable performances. Jon Chew was my favourite, a brilliant piece of casting replacing Douglas Lim from the previous run. I especially liked that he didn’t need much to age and was equally believable as a teenager, an adult and an elder. Notable singers were Omar Ali and Anrie Too, who with a little more focus on pitch, could potentially sound even better than she already did. Colin Kirton had a decent tone but needed more work on projection as his lyrics more often than not came out quite muffled.

The various aunties were also well-played, particularly Mak Ton by Tria Aziz, whose high notes were a delight, and Sani Zainal Abidin played the kaypoh Tai Soh to a T. However, the characters of Siew Yee and Mei Ling, felt rather one-dimensional, serving little purpose than to give Ming more reason to leave (Siew Yee) or more reason to stay (Mei Ling). Ringo too could have had much more confident swagger — all I felt was annoyed at someone who came off as a wannabe bigshot.

The Aunties

The Aunties. L-r, back row: Tai Soh (Sani Zainal Abidin), Teacher (Theresa Leahy), Mak Ton (Tria Aziz); front row: Leng Soh (Priscilla Wong) and Cheong Soh (Teow Siew Thung)

The plot itself is relatable — everyone is familiar with the internal battle between staying put in comfortable surroundings and venturing out into the new. Duty bound, filial Leong stays in Ipoh quite happily, proud to be carrying on his father’s business. “What’s wrong with the old ways?” he asks. Ming makes it very clear that there’s nothing wrong with the old ways, nor are the new ways better per se. He simply wants to walk a different path, and the only other path shown to him was to move to Singapore and he took it. I can imagine all our parents going through similar turmoil fifty years ago, while some of us today dream of escaping KL — now too small — to bigger, brighter cities. But whether through Leong’s or Ming’s eyes, the audience can see that the writers clearly really love Ipoh, even slipping in a mention of ACS, their old alma mater.

All that said, the plot moved at an odd pace. The first act felt like one very long establishing scene, reminding you at every turn that you were in Ipoh (just in case you didn’t get it the previous six times) and that this is how life in Ipoh was like. The second act was much better paced, though the distress of the townsfolk losing their market and the development of Ming and Mei Ling’s romance could have been explored more.

The fathers:

The fathers Wong (Colin Kirton) and Chan (Monti)

As a result of a bumpy pace, I felt that there were missed opportunities for songs and too many songs about certain things. For example, I would have appreciated a number about Ming’s rise to riches in Singapore and a lot less of the townsfolk being reduced to caricatures of kaypoh aunties playing matchmaker. My biggest issue with the music numbers was that there was very little exposition that happened while the songs were being performed. In the two songs about Ming and Mei Ling, it was much of the two of them standing about gazing longingly into each other’s eyes. Which is all well and good; I just wished that they acted out their dates, like a chaste round of hide-and-seek at the shoplots or a simple picnic rendezvous.

The music itself though was definitely well written, with the exception of the excessive polyphony of “Why” and “Just This Once”. Lim Chuang Yik’s influences of Alan Menken are very clearly heard — every time I heard “Ipoh Town” I half-expected the chorus to sing out “bonjour!” to each other like in “Belle” from Beauty and the Beast.

Overall, I feel that Broken Bridges is a solid stepping stone for Malaysian musical writers to explore and find a Malaysian musical sound.

Overall, I feel that Broken Bridges is a solid stepping stone for Malaysian musical writers to explore and find a Malaysian musical sound. I’d personally like to see not just Malaysian stories, but Malaysian (or at least regional) styles of music and dance. It wouldn’t be easy to incorporate them into something that would immediately sell out an auditorium, but I hope Malaysian musical theater begins stepping away from Broadway soon. Maybe someone should update a randai

Broken Bridges ran from 16th to 26th May at KLPAC and toured in Penang from 1st to 8th June at PenangPAC.