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Admiral's Odyssey, The


The Admiral's Odyssey
Reviewed by 1. Musa Fazal 2. Kenneth Lyen

Music: Ken Low
Lyrics: Ken Low and Jean Tay
Book: Jean Tay
Director: Darren Yap
Choreography: Aaron Khek, Wong Thien Pau
Dates: 8-10 July 2005
Venue: Jubilee Hall, Raffles Hotel

1. Reviewed by Musa Fazal
Rating: ** (out of five stars)

The Admiral's Odyssey was a musical (supposedly) inspired by the seven epic voyages of the 15th century Chinese adventurer, the eunuch admiral Cheng Ho.

Here's the plot in a nutshell: a young boy finds Cheng Ho's footprint in stone on a beach. By some strange magic Cheng Ho suddenly appears to him and tells him his life story in hope the boy will learn some lessons. The boy grows up and decides to go on his own adventure, leaving behind his sweetheart, his bitter elder brother and his poor old mum. Things don't work out in the big, bad world so he comes home, but alas it's too late - mum's dead, and his ex has married his brother. He finally realises that what he was searching for all along was at home.

With a plot like that, how could ACTION Theatre not be convinced they had a winner? Set it to music and squeeze in a few nifty dance moves, and you have the tinder in the fireworks for an NDP parade. Cast Tay Ping Hui in the lead, and you have a full-blown, 20-episode Channel 8 drama series. Unfortunately I must raise my dissenting hand and voice the many, many problems I had with this performance.

Top of my list - what did any of this have to do with Cheng Ho? Yes, there were some references to Cheng Ho's voyages, but the links with the main plot were as thin as Paris Hilton's waist. I think it speaks volumes that more was revealed of Cheng Ho's life through the musical's programme than through the play itself. History teachers should be warned: do not be misled by the blurbs and ads that seem to promise much more.

And where was this play set? The young boy was apparently living in "present" time, because there were plenty of references to the fact that what happened to Cheng Ho happened 600 years ago (in case anyone forgot that this was all part of the admiral's 600th anniversary celebrations). But there also seemed to be a whole kampong feel to the first few scenes. Was this Singapore in the 60s? Could it be a village in China? It's anyone's guess.

Costumes were generally lavish but didn't help in anchoring the play. The main cast was dressed in summery shades of brown that had a whole colonial British India feel. Question: Christopher's mother is a dressmaker who apparently weaves fascinating garments, but despite the many elaborate costumes, we never actually see her famous embroideries. Why? Why do some parts call for us to exercise our imagination, whereas other parts seem in-your-face? Like the boy's name. Christopher Cheng. Part Christopher Columbus, part Cheng Ho. Greatest Western explorer meets greatest Eastern explorer. It's okay if you're naming dishes on a fusion cuisine menu, but it's a bit tacky here.

Another question: What was the opening dance sequence in the second half about? The second half begins with a feisty Boom Boom Room-style dance number by the chorus, who are all dolled up as stewardesses in tiny skirts (including the male members in drag). It was entertaining, yes, but also a little risque for a play packed with wholesome family values - and it was completely detachable from the rest of the plot.

The music was okay. Ken Low's melodies are pleasant tunes with a Barry Manilow feel. But in a good musical, the songs contribute to the story and add drama. A character breaks into song not because she has to, but because the words have led her to it, and there is no other way out of a moment than through song. I didn't feel that way about any of the songs here.

What saved this show in the end was its strong cast. Jason Chan in the lead was a charmer - a good-looking chap with great presence, and an easy, effortless style. The singing was credible all round. Emma Yong especially has an affectingly beautiful voice although she didn't quite get a chance to show it off here to its fullest. The chorus put in palpably energetic performances too.

But this alone was not enough to warrant the round of self-congratulation at the end of the show, with producer Ekachai Uekrongthram spending ten minutes thanking his entire cast and crew as if this was his first school play.

Then again, who am I to criticise? ACTION Theatre has taken its Siamese twins round the world. They don't care about the half-baked opinion of someone from The Inkpot. It's how the audience reacts that matters. And some people clearly enjoyed the show. Several in front of me felt moved enough to give a standing ovation. Or perhaps they felt restless and needed to get off their bums while they clapped. I don't know for sure.

What I do know is that there are theatre groups out there doing very good things that no one pays any attention to. Stellar performances that barely draw a whisper of a crowd. And then there are shows like this that get published in Singapore Tourism Board brochures.

It makes me angry. Cheng Ho's life is a wonderful story, told straight up, without any sappy songs or dancing queens. ACTION Theatre felt otherwise. I raise my dissenting hand in protest.

[This review first appeared in The Flying Inkpot ]


2. Reviewed by Kenneth Lyen
Rating: *** (out of five stars)

There are many challenges when writing about historical figures. Should you be historically accurate? Should you try to second guess their underlying psyche? And can you bend the facts to suit your purposes? Fortunately for Admiral Cheng Ho, we know so little about him that we can enjoy considerable artistic license. More so if he is only a spirit or ghost, as depicted in The Admiral's Odyssey.

This musical is about Chris Cheng (Jason Chan), who developed a spiritual connection with Admiral Cheng Ho (Michael Williams) after finding a giant footprint of the admiral. Chris is imbued with a lifelong desire to travel. He falls in love with Lily (Emma Yong) but she declines to follow him in his globetrotting as she has an aged father to look after. His doting mother (Wendi Koh) prefers him to his elder brother Colin (George Chan), and persuades him to remain at home. But Chris' spirit is restless, and he leaves home in search of his dreams. There are some parallels in his voyages, which are sometimes by air, to those of Admiral Cheng Ho. Like the Admiral, he neglects his family at home, only reluctantly returning when his mother suffers a serious illness. During one encounter with his elder brother, Chris states that Colin has sacrificed himself to stay at home. Countering this, Colin tells Chris that it is the other way round, that paradoxically it was Chris who had made the sacrifice by leaving home.

This production has many strengths. The book written by Jean Tay sparkles. There are many jokes, including a visual one, with Admiral Cheng Ho holding a copy of the book "1421, The Year China Discovered America". The characters are well drawn, and the sadness in the second half is very moving. The music is pleasant and the lyrics are good. The singing is excellent all round. Special mention must be made to Michael Williams who was the best singer of the cast. Jason Chan played Chris very well, as did Emma Yong is his girlfriend and his mother, Wendi Koh.

Despite all these strong points, The Admiral's Odyssey has some major weaknesses.

The first is the theme or spine of the story. Is it about Chris looking for his dreams, that he thinks can be found by traveling? Or is it about his search for something spiritual? If so, what? And why is his desire for adventure so consuming that he is willing to abandon his mother and girlfriend? It is too simplistic to blame it all on Admiral Cheng Ho.

The second weakness is the characterization of Chris. He is portrayed as the gallivanting son whose return home is reminiscent of the prodigal son, especially when his mother displays greater affection for him than his stay-at-home brother. Chris is portrayed as the bad guy, and I expected that he would do something to redeem himself. At least I'm old-fashioned enough to want to see some justice, or at least some penance.

The third weakness is the ensemble contemporary scenes, such as "Citizens of the World" with the air hostesses, and the office scenes, which I found jarring.

The fourth weakness is the predictability of the ending, which I felt unsatisfying.

The dilemma facing the musician when writing an Eastern story using a Western art form is to know where to place the fulcrum. If you try to gain authenticity by making the work sound more Eastern, you will alienate the audience whose ears are more attuned to Western musical idioms. Alternatively if you make the work more Western, you might alienate an Asian audience and expose yourself to the criticism of bastardization. To achieve the right balance is tricky.

Let me look at two examples. Walt Disney's Mulan is written in the Disney-cum-Hollywood tradition, and although attempts have been made to make it sound Chinese, it is predominantly a Western sound. Some Asian listeners cringe when listening to Mulan's songs. In contrast, Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures makes fewer concessions to Western ears. Although the music is more authentically Japanese, it is harder for Western ears to appreciate.

Iskandar Ismail's music arrangement for The Admiral's Odyssey is excellent. But to me, it is far too Western. Personally I would have preferred a greater Eastern element, especially in the passages with Admiral Cheng Ho. The last song, "Will You Remember", started off much too contemporarily. I do not mind the arrangement to quickly abandon the Asian idiom after the initial few bars, but it did bother me that there was an insufficient Chinese sound.

Ken Low is a talented songwriter. His songs are very pleasant and easy to listen to. I liked his quieter ballads and the last song. I was disappointed with the songs "Twenty Years" and "Angel" which should have carried more emotional power. There were no reprises of any of the songs, which I felt was a pity. Ken needs to work harder on the hooks, to render his songs more memorable. Unfortunately I left the theater not being able to hum any of the tunes.

In the final analysis, The Admiral's Odyssey is a good attempt. However, it is very much a work in progress. There needs to be substantial rewrites to the book, and the songs needs more tweaking, to give the musical the tremendous success it deserves.