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“Liao Zhai Rocks!”《聊斋》

April 7, 2010
by

Event: Liao Zhai Rocks!
Venue: Drama Centre Theatre
Run: 25th Mar – 11th Apr 2010

Perhaps it is because Mandarin musicals in Singapore tend to be few and far between, that’s why fans of local Mandarin musicals tend to be much more supportive of such productions.

And they would be rightfully indebted to The Theatre Practice for producing musicals such as “Lao Jiu: The Musical”, “If There’re Seasons…” as well as their latest and most ambitious effort to date – “Liao Zhai Rocks!”.

The first thing that struck me as I entered the Drama Centre Theatre at close to 8pm was that it was barely one-third full.

(Bear in mind this was just a few minutes before the show started.)

I reckon the actual attendance of the production that night didn’t exceed 60% capacity.

Which is quite a discouraging sign, if you ask me.

And from my observations, most of the audience were Chinese-speaking…no doubt fans of local Mandarin theatre and musicals.

Anyway, if there are only a few things you need to know about “Liao Zhai Rocks!” (strange title, don’t you think?), it is these:

i) It is an original Mandarin musical produced by The Threatre Practice.

ii) The music style is rock music.

iii) It is based on the colourful folk stories of the Qing dynasty classic “The Strange Tales of Liao Zhai”.

Opening Number

The musical is drawn from Chinese folklore, and touches a lot on the underworld.

Hence, the opening number was a highly creepy, sinister, menacing portrayal of Hell…in the manner which we would all assume Hell would really be like.

This was supposed to set the tone for the entire musical.

The opening number has to always do that.

Much has been made of the famous story regarding Stephen Sondheim’s attempts to get the opening number right for “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum”.

He had initially written an opening number called “Love Is In The Air”, but it just didn’t work, because it didn’t set the right tone for the musical.

And after Jerome Robbins suggested the opening number be changed to something more comical to reflect the nature of the entire musical, Sondheim came up with “Comedy Tonight” and the musical was a success after that.

I felt that perhaps “Liao Zhai’s” opening number made it seem way too serious, and hence the attempts at humour in the first few subsequent scenes just didn’t fly, because the audience was expecting something very serious.

Also, as some of you may know I am usually quite particular about the “tone” of a production.

A production whose “tone” wavers throughout the show would cause the audience to be confused, and they would not know if they should be looking to laugh, cry, or be serious.

Which is the same problem “Liao Zhai” faced.

Not to mention the fact that the attempts at humour throughout the production tended to be a little on the cheesy side.

Applause?

I don’t know if this is the practice at Mandarin musicals, but throughout the entire musical, the was absolutely no applause at the end of numbers.

In fact, the music was arranged in a way that there was no space given to the audience to applaud anyway, meaning that immediately after the end of each song, the actors resumed their dialogue.

This is unlike English musicals whereby there will be subtle “cues” for the audience to applaud after each number.

Now I think applause is very important because it gives the audience an opportunity to show their appreciation for the actors’ efforts, and this in a way creates rapport between audience and performer as well.

And because of the lack of applause in “Liao Zhai”, that crucial rapport was lost.

Music & Lyrics

I think the inherent problem with rock musicals is that the instrumentation usually ends up overpowering the vocals, and the lyrics are hardly discernible.

That is the nature of rock music – the clarity of lyrical delivery is not the most important thing.

Whereas the main criteria for musical theatre lyrics is that they need to be highly discernible, because the lyrics are always telling a story.

If you can’t catch the lyrics, you can’t catch the story.

And therein lies the problem.

Most of the lyrics were indiscernible thanks to the thumping drums and heavy-distortion guitars, and I had to rely on the translation on the side screens to catch what was being sung.

But don’t get me wrong though, I think “Liao Zhai” has got one of the strongest music and lyrics I’ve heard yet from a local musical.

The songwriting duo of Eric Ng and Xiaohan is just incredible.

Eric Ng is adept at crafting strong, powerful melodies in the Chinese pop mould, and many of the tunes stayed with the audience even after the musical ended.

I felt that there were at least three or four songs in the musical that could easily become chart-toppers.

There was a particular melodic refrain that was milked to death in the show, but it was a good melody, so nobody’s complaining! =)

Chinese Lyrics?

Ok, I have one issue with Chinese lyrics in a musical.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being discriminatory or what.

I thought Xiaohan’s lyrics were brilliant and beautiful.

It’s just the problem with the language itself.

One huge aspect of the enjoyment of musical theatre is the appreciation of the wittiness of the lyrics, especially through the rhyme.

If you were to study Alan Jay Lerner’s lyrics, you would understand how rich and ingenious and delightful Broadway lyrics can be.

But with Chinese lyrics…yes, they can be beautiful and poetic and all that, but the delight in discovering the witty rhymes is not there.

You won’t believe how much pleasure is derived from the lyrics of a brilliant lyricist such as Lerner or Sondheim.

But with Chinese lyrics, this whole element is gone.

Ok, I’ve said my peace.

Story

If there was one major weak point in the musical, I thought it was the story.

I felt the first act was particularly weak, as it took too long to tell too little.

Who was the main protagonist? Who were we supposed to root for? Was there a particular ambition in any of the main characters?

All this was not clear.

And I felt they did not do a good enough job of illustrating how and why Ying Ning fell in love with Sang Xiao.

Yes, we know that Sang Xiao fell madly in love with Ying Ning, but the reverse was not properly fleshed out…which resulted in it being quite “empty” when Ying Ning started to profess her undying love for Sang Xiao later in the musical.

I mean, as I said, the songs were excellent, and many a times I felt that every time an actor launched into a song, the beauty of the song seemed to make everyone forget about all other inadequacies of the show.

Which goes to show you what great songs can do for a musical.

Production and Conclusion

Lastly, something needs to be said about the production.

I don’t know how to describe it, but it felt as if the production didn’t really manage to how shall I say…”fill the stage”?

The sets and props just didn’t give me the “wow” factor.

They say musicals are supposed to be larger than life, but it didn’t feel that way for “Liao Zhai”.

I felt that “Liao Zhai” was too small for the stage, but that’s just me.

I just had this feeling that it could have been portrayed better, although I can’t quite articulate it.

More scene changes perhaps?

More creative and adventurous settings perhaps?

I dunno.

In conclusion, I will say that I attended “Liao Zhai” partly due to curiosity, and partly due to my continued efforts to watch as many local musical theatre productions as I can.

I wasn’t highly thrilled by the production (the portrayals of the underworld gave me occasional flashbacks to “Sleepless Town”, and I don’t mean this in a good way), but I would have to say that “Liao Zhai” has got some of the strongest songs I’ve ever heard in a local musical production.

And sometimes that in itself is enough to make you forgive all other transgressions.

But not enough for me.

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