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Lao Jiu


Lao Jiu
The Musical
Reviewed by Kenneth Lyen

Original Play: Kuo Pao Kun
Adaptation: Wu Xi, Zhang Xian
Lyrics: Xiao Han, Wu Xi, Yang Qian
Music: Jonathan Price
Puppets: Tan Beng Tian, Rene Ong
Director: Kuo Jian Hong
Choreographer: Kuo Jing Hong
Set Design: Lim Wei Ling
Cast: Liu Xiaoyi, Johnny Ng, Lim Kay Siu, Goh Guat Kian, Jonathan Lim, Tan Beng Chiak, Justin Kan, Andrew Lua
Rating: *** (out of five stars)

I play the good cop in the game Good Cop, Bad Cop: I liked Lao Jiu the musical, enjoyed it enormously, and can recommend it heartily.

However, nearly all my theater friends have opted to play the role of bad cop. When I spoke to them, they have, almost without exception, sharpened their critical fangs.

The theme of the musical is "do you follow your dreams, or do you join in the rat race?" The title refers to the ninth and last child, the only son, born to the Chng family.  They have a family friend, a traditional Chinese puppeteer, who predicts antenatally that the boy would be talented and intelligent. Indeed, the predictions come true, and the boy excels in his studies. He is invited to sit for a scholarship exam which could open the doors to a promising academic career. However, his dreams are quite different. He just wants to become a traditional puppeteer, a dying art form. In the middle of the exams, he suffers a crisis of confidence, and cannot decide whether to follow his artistic dreams or the more realistic career option strongly advocated by his parents and other family members.

The original play was written by the late Kuo Pao Kun and was first staged in 1990. It is adapted into a musical by Zhang Xian and Wu Xi. The dialogue is in Mandarin and Hokkien. The Chinese lyrics are written by Yang Qian, Wu Xi and Xiao Han. The music is written by Jonathan Price, and directed by Belinda Foo.

First let me tell you what my theater colleagues have to say about Lao Jiu. They summed it up in one word: "Mediocre." They say that the story is cliched and overly simplistic, the character development is minimal, the songs unmemorable, the singing, acting and dancing average, and the ending far too abrupt. Amen.

Were they watching a different show? I found the musical brimming with energy, and I loved the enthusiasm of the performers. Sure, the singing could be better, the dancing could be less ragged, and the acting need not be so over-the-top. In their defence I would suggest that they, like most Singapore shows, have to work within a suboptimal budget.

The Chinese lyrics are extremely good and there is clever play on words. The music arrangement and direction is outstanding. It did not matter that the songs were unhummable and unmemorable. They served their purpose to a tee. The music was arranged so that it was a fusion of east and west, and I think it got the balance spot on. The ensemble pieces and the duets were particularly good.

The dancing and acrobatics were vivacious and kept the show in a state of hyperkinetic energy. The set design is brilliant. The pieces could be taken apart and reassembled in a myriad of different shapes, or rotated around the stage. The Chinese dialogue and lyrics are translated and projected on the two sides of the stage. Unfortunately if you strained your neck to read the words, you would miss the action on stage.

There are some hilarious moments. I particularly liked the announcement of the birth of a baby girl and the downcast face of the father. The nurse answering the telephone in several languages is something that can only occur in multicultural Southeast Asia.

The book bears the brunt of criticisms by my theatrical colleagues. They say that the main problem is that it is inadequately developed, and feels like a work in progress. The plot is indeed too simplistic and the characters are not explored sufficiently. There are loose ends, and the close of the musical us much too abrupt.

What are the specific criticisms? This is what the critics have to say:

The opening was wonderful, and it showed what went on in Lao Jiu's imagination. However, it was never developed further. Later, when studying for his exams, three prisoner-like dancers appear. But this imagery is not exploited to its full. If, for example, at this point, you were to juxtapose the rich images of the opening with the idea of prisoners, the stark contrast would enable you to drive home Lao Jiu's emotional predicament.

The needs of the protagonist are not well established. Why does Lao Jiu want so badly to be a puppeteer? Apart from the one puppet show we saw him watching, and the lines of the puppets he reels, we don't see his passion for them. Also, what part does the old puppeteer play in his decision? The old man does not seem to have moved the boy at all. In fact in the first half, there are hardly any exchanges between the two of them, and Lao Jiu was not seen handling the puppets. So when he does run away, we wonder whether Lao Jiu really loves the craft or is he just escaping the pressure of his family to succeed. No wonder the family thinks he doesn't know what he's doing.

Lao Jiu's character does not stand out. He does not appear any smarter than the rest of his family. Again, this is because much is SAID about him being better, but the audience will not believe it unless it is shown to be so.

There is an axiom taught in writing school: "show, don't tell." This advice seems to have been ignored in this musical. When the father says "We did this and that for you, we made so many sacrifices ... why are you so ungrateful," it sounds hollow. It would have been better to show how the parents made the sacrifices rather than telling their son about it. For instance, showing the father removing his tattoos would touch the audience more effectively. Another example occurs in a scene toward the end, which seems to have come straight out of the Chinese television channel, where the parents and family pile on their emotional baggage onto their errant son.

Too many of the solo numbers were sung with little emotion and no blocking. Perhaps the problem is in the direction. In fact, there is one particular song near the end, when Lao Jiu sang for five minutes without moving, and each line was sung in almost the same way as the next.

The best line in the whole play was "I'm the puppet because you (my family) are pulling the strings." But it is frittered away. There was no build up to this line. Metaphor should be one of the themes of this play, but it was never developed.

What was that scene with the big puppets all about? Suddenly there they were doing battle on stage with the main characters in full view as spectators. Perhaps better saved as the last scene when the puppets take over Lao Jiu's life would make more sense and provide a better ending for the audience to take home with them. With the present ending, Lao Jiu seems like one of these people in love with the idea of being an artist but not realizing that it is bloody hard work and heartache.

Music wise, sorry, but one is not impressed. Most sounded similar, with the same tempo, same chords. The songs should mark a scene, character, or turning point, and if you take these into consideration, then they will sound more different.

Vocally, the cast was not there. Granted, not all are professional singers, but the technique has to be there. Many of the singers were projecting poorly. Fortunately the singing in the second half was better than the first.

In the final analysis, despite all its shortcomings, Lao Jiu is a musical I enjoyed very much. However, it definitely needs a lot more work. An opportunity to improve it may arise when it is being translated into English.

19 November 2005


Lao Jiu
The Musical
Reviewed by AN Other

I watched Lao Jiu on its final performance, and apparently many cast members had caught a flu bug, and were not in their optimal performing capacity. The lead singers were suffering from sore throats.

For me, the story is a winner, and the music is the weakest link in the whole production. It should not have been made into a musical. It should have remained in its original stage play format which the late Kuo Pao Kun devised.

I feel that perhaps the story should not be judged using the same criteria as for assessing contemporary western drama. Let me offer my personal perspectives on Kuo Pao Kun's world.

He is a commentator. His plays are a social commentary conveyed in a fictional format. They are deeply rooted in a contemporary socio-political landscape that most of us are familiar with. He is also firmly anchored to his traditional Chinese heritage, which includes strong family bonds, and the preservation of traditions. Yet Pao Kun is an advocate of societal changes. He questions the consequences of such changes and its bearing on one's cultural roots. Lao Jiu is the voice that highlights the dilemma of change versus tradition. There are no right or wrong answers here.

In this story, everybody with a deep sense of Chinese culture will empathise with Lao Jiu's inner conflict: his personal fantasies versus economic progress. The characters in Lao Jiu are deliberately 'hamming it up'. This is Kuo Pao Kun's larger than life depiction of the typical old-fashioned Chinese family. And yes, they do behave like that. The texture of Chinese theater is rather different from western ones, and cannot be judged on the same level.

Why does the story hang in mid-air? And why do the characters appear one-dimensional? For me this is based on the context of establishing a story within a familiar cultural scenario that needs no further explanation: the traditional Chinese family wants a boy because the boy carries the family name; the entire generation places faith in one boy to succeed; the boy is pressured, he feels the need to seek his other dreams and looks for the puppet master, his only source of joy.

Conflict ensues between Lao Jiu and his family. It is cliched, yes, but no one has done it more poignantly and earnestly as Kuo Pao Kun. He was brutally honest in addressing these issues at a time when few conservative Chinese would dare to do so. Kuo Pao Kun is a rebel who seeks to enlighten many traditionalists to such conflicts between change versus preservation of the past. Therefore, if the story tries too hard to develop characters more fully, there is a danger that one might lose its effects on the powerless characters who had to abide by it or fail.

Having said all that, for me, the music FAILED big time. I simply could not understand why certain songs were written the way they were. And yes, they were rather bland and repetitive. The only song that I could feel a sense of attachment to is the main theme "Hope", sung by two sisters and Lao Jiu, and later reprised several times by different characters. This melancholic song cut a deep resonance in me. The biggest flop of a song is that pseudo-avant garde modern song depicting Lao Jiu's internal struggle with studying, where he went about with those acrobatic sequences with three supposed alter-egos. I could not hear what he was singing and what the music was all about.

Jonathan Price does not seem to understand how a musical works. He leaves so many blank spaces between scene changes that the pacing just drops dead. Some of the songs were not developed properly, and it left the dramatic journey hanging badly between and within scenes. This has an adverse effect on the story telling. I also dislike his indiscriminate use of hip-hop drum loops to depict technology: it only works for a short while. The novelty soon wears off, and it becomes annoying. Most irritating was the orchestra. The string players were particularly awful with their bad intonation and it clashed with the singing on many occasions.

All in all, I felt Lao Jiu should have stayed as a play. If it is to be adapted into a musical, it needs a radical overhaul. Right now, it felt like a play trying to work as a musical.

The result is weird.

20 November 2005