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Lao Jiu: The Musical 《老九》

July 16, 2012
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Event: “Lao Jiu: The Musical 《老九》音乐剧” (as part of the “Kuo Pao Kun Festival 2012”)
Venue: Drama Centre Theatre
Run: 12th – 29th July 2012

Symphony of the Ninth

“Lao Jiu: The Musical” kicks things off with the first of what seems to be a delightful flurry of musicals these two months (think “Annie”, “La Cage aux Folles”, and “Army Daze”).

“Lao Jiu” the play – first staged in 1990 – remains one of Kuo Pao Kun’s most popular works, and was first staged as a musical in 2005 by The Theatre Practice.

Having never seen “Lao Jiu” in any of its many iterations before, I entered the Drama Centre with high hopes and expectations, as my companion would attest.

According to director Kuo Jian Hong, this 2012 version of the musical is an attempt to improve upon the 2005 one, to make it better and more complete.

It features a stronger artistic team and a more mature and accomplished cast.

“Lao Jiu: The Musical” is a full length musical at more than two and a half hours in length, with an impressive list of fifteen musical numbers in the first act and ten in the second.

Let it be said that composer Eric Ng and lyricist Xiao Han are artists of the the highest calibre.

Eric Ng, who also composed for the popular soundtrack to the movie “881”, has the uncanny ability to churn out catchy pop melodies which immediately grab the listener’s ear.

The love ballad “Two of Us” (两人世界), serving as the centrepiece which encapsulated the feelings between Lao Jiu and Junior Horse, was memorable enough to leave audience members humming it at the intermission.

Xiao Han’s lyrics are truly a joy to behold, and I was utterly fascinated by her ability to make her Chinese lyrics rhyme with alarming discipline.

Certainly no mean feat, as any lyricist would attest.

But sadly, apart from delivering a sparkling score, “Lao Jiu: The Musical” felt like a letdown in other respects.

The musical was interesting in the sense that it called for a huge cast – sixteen actors alone just to play the eight sisters and their spouses, not to mention the parents, Shi Fu, Senior Horse and Junior Horse – and thus, the proceedings on stage were often lively and full of colour.

However, the somewhat contrived use of the large cast could barely mask the fact that the plot was essentially reed thin, especially in the first act, where it felt like the fifteen musical numbers were there to pad a storyline which could probably have been told in less than half the duration.

Yes, the themes of the musical are apparent enough – to follow your heart and pursue your dreams, the conflict between familial duty and personal interests, doing what you truly believe in even if others might dissuade you from it, etc.

But the entire plot just felt a bit too bare and static for a full length musical, and even the wonderful songs were unable to do much in furthering the plot, even if they did manage to reveal character.

The book didn’t seem to bring out the full extent of Lao Jiu’s obsession with puppetry, and the stakes in the story didn’t seem high enough to make the viewer fully invested.

Also, the “is it or is it not” love affair between Lao Jiu and Junior Horse felt clumsily put together, and even more disappointingly, did not offer much in terms of development and resolution.

Lead actor Sugie did a fine job with his portrayal of Lao Jiu, crisp tenor voice and all, although one would have hoped to have seen a bit more of the conflict being portrayed (between his obligation toward his studies versus his undying passion for puppetry), so that we could have perhaps empathised more with the struggles which he faced.

Popular singer-songwriter Inch Chua, who played Junior Horse, had no problems rendering her numbers on a musical stage, although her character portrayal could perhaps have benefitted from a more nuanced delievery.

Marcus Chin, who played the role of the long-suffering head of the household, put in a remarkable and convincing performance and was to me the most outstanding performer of the show.

In all, even though “Lao Jiu: The Musical” was packed with great songs, wonderful lyrics and well brought out themes, I left the theatre with a palpable sense of disappointment because it felt to me like the book was found wanting, and it left one with a rather unsatisfying feeling inside.

Let’s hope the other three upcoming musicals will be a bit better.

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