LOCAL audiences can't seem to get enough of Beauty World, the charmingly camp musical tale of a small-town girl who goes to a sleazy cabaret in search of her roots in 1960s-era Singapore.
No matter what the critics say, it's not difficult to figure out why the theatre-going crowd identifies so readily with it - simple plot, signature tunes, and sufficient doses of Singlish-style humour.
Since its debut at the World Trade Centre in 1988, Singaporeans have turned out en masse to support this milestone musical, written by Michael Chiang with songs by Dick Lee - pioneers of the popular entertainment form who were instrumental in paving the way for the development of the homegrown musical.
In its 20th anniversary incarnation (a Wild Rice production directed by Ivan Heng), which opened at The Esplanade Theatre last week and runs until Jan 19, Beauty World demonstrated how far it has come - and also how it has managed to stay the same. The sets are more elaborate, the costumes more gaudy, the production numbers more sophisticated but, at its core, it remains a singular sensation - with a distinct Singaporean voice.
This latest version - it has been staged a couple of other times since 1988 - has been tightened and tarted up to a considerable degree, most notably with the addition of several new songs. It inevitably lacks the fresh-faced innocence of its heroine (not to mention the lower-budget original), and Beauty World 2008 tries to make up for that perceived shortfall by coming on strong in terms of Broadway-style pizzazz and throwing in everything but the kitchen sink.
A little restraint may perhaps have been prudent but then again, Beauty World has nothing to do with subtlety and everything to do with being bold and brassy - in its characterisations and its over-the-top production numbers. Several of the main characters are presented in broad, colourful strokes and the actors play their roles for more laughs than necessary, but then exaggerated, overblown displays are understandably easier to perform, and also easier to appreciate.
Ivy Chan Poh Choo - portrayed with commendable restraint by Elena Wang - leaves Batu Pahat (a once-obscure town that, in a strange twist, has been all over the news recently, due to a sex scandal involving a Malaysian Cabinet minister) for the bright lights of big, bad Singapore.
There, she hopes to find her long-lost father, who abandoned her as a baby and left her nothing more than a jade pendant with the name of the titular nightclub engraved on the back. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, she encounters various characters that may unlock the past, or hold the key to her future.
Life in Beauty World, where most of the action takes place, reflects nothing so much as a Cantonese drama - a deliberate move on the author's part, of course. Here, characters in loud outfits sing and dance about life, love and longing, running the gamut of emotions within the space of a single song. The sound was raw and the singing a little uneven at times - noticeably among the men - but with this musical, the audience tends to be in a forgiving mood.
Cast members include Mummy (Neo Swee Lin), who manages the club and its girls; Lulu (Denise Tan) the club's number one girl and resident gold-digger; Ah Hock (Daren Tan), the in-house Ah Beng in touch with his sensitive side; and Wan Choo (Irene Ang), the Cantonese-spouting cleaner who knows everything even as she claims she knows nothing.
On the outside, there's Ivy's helpful pen-pal Rosemary (Alemay Fernandez, picture right) and Frankie (Dwayne Tan), Ivy's geeky boyfriend from Batu Pahat.
As directed by Heng (who played Frankie in the original), Beauty World has been puffed up for consumption by a new, more expectant generation of Singaporeans.
This extended update is not of its time and place as the original was, but despite some unnecessary embellishments, it stands perfectly well on its own.
"How can I go home now?" says Ivy near the end of Act II. "Things are not the same any more." Twenty years on, Beauty World is one musical journey that still takes us home every time.