'Chang and Eng' to be tweaked for stateside appearance

SINGAPORE — Singapore’s most successful homegrown musical, Action Theater’s “Chang and Eng,” has its sights set on U.S. shores. With the help of Broadway producer Kevin McCollum, the show could arrive Stateside mid-2002.

In November, McCollum invited the show’s producer-director, Ekechai Uekrongtham, to meet with the Independent Producers’ Network in the U.S. That org comprises CEOs and programming directors of major not-for-profit arts centers around the country. They meet regularly to share resources and make joint programming decisions.

McCollum was also in the Lion City (Singapore) early in January to catch the latest production.

“It’s funny that while you consider it a very Asian story, we consider Chang and Eng an example of the American dream,” says McCollum, referring to the fact that half the tuner’s action occurs in the U.S. (The twins married American sisters and settled in North Carolina — fathering 21 kids between them.)

Based on the real-life story of the original “Siamese” (conjoined) twins, the show was conceived, produced and directed by Thai-born Singaporean Ekechai.

“In Thailand everyone knows the story of Chang and Eng; so this is a very Asian story told using a very Western art form,” Ekechai says. He originally considered a darker stage play, a la “Elephant Man” — “But I discovered their real lives were so rich, so colorful, a musical was far more appropriate.”

Homecoming

With “The King and I” still banned in his native Thailand, Ekechai is thrilled at the prospect of presenting his “baby” in Bangkok at a performance attended by the King of Thailand’s mother. “I like to think of it as the original Siamese twins finally coming home,” he says.

The show’s pan-Asian tour, kicking off in Thailand March 9 and due to make stops in Malaysia and the Philippines, is part of an extensive “tweaking” process advised by McCollum before the production faces discerning U.S. audiences.

“We’re the first to admit the show is far from perfect,” says Ekechai, “and Kevin has given us several pointers. We’re looking to juggle the scenes, and will probably rejig 20% of it.”

McCollum sees a lot of promise in the material. “I’m greatly looking forward to seeing what Ekechai and the guys come back to me with in a couple of months,” he says.

With substantial backing (more than 60%) from Singapore’s National Arts Council, the musical’s three-day initial run in 1997 was part of the Festival of Asian Performing Arts. It was so well received that August saw 10 additional performances, followed by sellout runs in 1999 and early 2001 — a success that Ekechai attributes to its “being a musical with truly Asian sensibilities.”

Chinese first

“Chang and Eng” was the first English-language (with Chinese subtitles) musical to be performed by the National Ballet and Opera of China.

“The response was phenomenal,” says Ekechai, referring to the 1,800-strong packed house at Beijing’s Century Theater. “With Chinese opera the dominant art form, this was the first ‘popular opera’ they had seen.” The show’s success paved the way for a Beijing production of “The Sound of Music.”

Ekechai speaks of “very initial” interest from London’s West End, pointing realistically to the slow evolutionary process that sees him currently in discussion with and seeking guidance from McCollum.

While most famous as a 1996 Tony winner for co-producing “Rent,” McCollum co-founded the Booking Group and is president and co-founder of the nonprofit Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, Minn.

With McCollum’s encouragement, Ekechai hopes to premiere “Chang and Eng” in a few U.S. cities in 2002 — a move the director proudly describes as “a reversal of the export flow.” But he is under no illusion that it will be an easy task to bring his product to the birthplace of the art form. “The U.S. certainly knows how to do tuners, and we’ve still got some way to go.”

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