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Kung Fu Tale, A


A Kung Fu Tale
Reviewed by Ken Lyen

Music: Li Yi
Chinese Orchestra conductor: Tay Soon Huat
Cast: Chen Lei Biao, Karen Lin, Li Cheng Min
Venue: Esplanade Theatre
Date: 13-15 January 2006
Rating: *** (out of five stars)

A Kung Fu Tale is a musical about the legendary martial arts exponent, Wong Fei Hung. It claims to be the world's first kung fu musical.

Overall, I enjoyed the show. The kung fu display by the Shaolin Henan Songshan Performance Group was dazzling. In particular, the two child performers exhibited their stunning acrobatic prowess. The fighting scenes were well choreographed, and although there were occasional lapses, the wushu movements were mostly synchronous and highly energetic. The lead actors, Chen Lei Biao who played Wong Fei Hung, and Karen Lin who played his love interest, acted and sang well. The Singapore Armed Forces Music and Drama Company's Chinese Orchestra conducted by Major Tay Soon Huat accompanied the singers well, and provided appropriate background music.

What else do I like about the show? The lighting is very effective. In particular, it created the right sleezy atmosphere in the smoke-filled opium den by filling the stage with an eerie glow. The sets are elaborate and looked most authentic. The dragon meandering down the aisle is also very arousing, and added to the overall spectacle. Unfortunately the scene changes are far too protracted, and threatened to slow the show to a grinding halt.

As mentioned above, the singing and orchestra are excellent. In particular the drums, the pipa, and the string section playing is good, especially in creating a sense of urgency and danger. The music is a fusion of western and eastern sounds. At times it reminds one of Mao Zedong's propaganda operas, at other times it sounded like traditional Chinese opera, a Chinese rap, and then Mandarin pop. However, not all the music is original. The Wong Fei Hung theme song is borrowed from an existing Chinese piece of music. Li Yi wrote the remaining original songs. These are pleasant enough, but none of them memorable. One faux pas occurred when Fei Hung's girlfriend is asked to play some music. She sits in front of a guzheng (zither) on stage, and she stretches her hand to strum it. Instead of guzheng music, we hear a western piano, which is so jarring that the audience bursts out laughing.

However, there are some major shortcomings. The story is not well told. The scenes are too segmented, and no attempt made to convey a cohesive plot. Wong Fei Hung's love interest developed a little too quickly, and then just as quickly, the female lead disappears from the story, never to reappear. When China is overrun by foreign powers and opium is introduced, Wong Fei Hung goes to the opium den attempting to stop people smoking opium. He is unsuccessful, and he travels to the Shaolin Temple in order to become a devotee. With some difficulty he finally manages to convince the abbot that he genuinely wants to become a disciple of their order. But the moment the abbot becomes convinced of his sincerity, Wong Fei Hung is informed of a Russian who is challenging the Chinese to hand-to-hand combat. In less than a fraction of a second, Fei Hung jettisons his plans to join the monastery, and rushes to fight the Russian. He wins the fight, and the musical ends in a celebration.

We are left with a gigabyte of unanswered questions. What happened to his girlfriend? What happened to Fei Hung's vow to rid China of foreigners? Did he manage to recruit an army of followers? And did he manage to stop opium addiction spreading? What is the relevance of the Russian fight? All these questions and more remain suspended in the kung fu stratosphere.

A Kung Fu Tale is a valiant attempt to marry kung fu fighting with dance and music. It might have succeeded, were it not for the poorly developed characters and plot. The musical could not decide whether it is primarily a love story, historical drama, or a martial arts showcase. In the end it fell apart, a great opportunity missed. Nevertheless I think it is worth continuing the developmental process of this new style of musical, because I think it has the potential to appeal to a wide audience.

14 January 2006