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Theatre Review (Singapore): Lao Jiu – The Musical by The Theatre Practice

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Lao Jiu: The Musical staged by The Theatre Practice is running from July 12 to 29 at the Drama Centre Theatre as part of this year’s Kuo Pao Kun Festival.

Lao Jiu premiered in 1990 as a play, and in 2005 as a musical. It tells the tale of Lao Jiu (Sugie), the ninth child and only son in a family of eight girls. Lao Jiu’s sisters have menial jobs, as do their respective partners, and the sisters who are still in school are at risk of failing and not graduating. Lao Jiu, however, excels at his studies to such a degree that he’s invited by Senior Horse (Jeffrey Low) to sit for an exam in which the prize is a scholarship to university.

The whole family pins their hopes and dreams on Lao Jiu, and what starts off as attempts by the family to make his life more comfortable and his surroundings more conducive to studying well, soon turn into pressure on the poor boy, who actually harbours a secret desire: to carry on the puppetry trade his uncle (Lim Kay Siu) has taught him. Between chasing his own dreams, and societal and familial obligations, Lao Jiu’s inner turmoil is what drives the story.

Interwoven into this story is also a romantic arc, as Lao Jiu falls for Senior Horse’s assistant Junior Horse (Inch Chua). However, conflict soon arises between the two young lovers as they both struggle to make the right choices for their future.

So, how is Lao Jiu? Let me just cut to the chase: Lao Jiu is brilliant!

It is not brilliant “for a Singaporean musical”, it is brilliant period.

The pace is good, the acting is amazing, the singing is superb, the set, lighting and costumes are all wonderful, the songs are extremely catchy and melodious (courtesy of composer Eric Ng) and the creativity of the director is nothing short of astounding. I won’t spoil it, but in order to portray Lao Jiu’s inner demons and hopes, director Kuo Jian Hong seeks out rather creative ways of showing the audience exactly what Lao Jiu is going through privately.

Though the story of an Asian kid not being allowed to follow his dreams seems, at first glance, somewhat passé, we cannot deny that in many parts of Asia (even in modern Singapore) there are parents who would scorn their child’s attempt to be in the arts without at least a backup diploma in marketing! Hence as much as things are changing here in Singapore, I think the theme still holds some relevance.

Lao Jiu’s huge family includes the father (Marcus Chin), the mother (Goh Guat Kian), and his eight sisters who are played by, according to descending age: Candice de Rozario, Jo Tan, Hung Chit Wah, Joanna Dong, Catherine Wong, Shi Xin Hui, Lee Qian Yu, and Gloria Ang. The sisters’ respective husbands/fiances/boyfriends are played by Hang Qian Chou, Zachary Ho, Lv Lin Xuan, Ric Liu, Edric Hsu, Edward Choy, Tay Wei Liang, and Trev Neo. 

All 19 cast members who play the family give outstanding performances as they harmonize effortlessly and have all the necessary layers and nuances in each of their portrayals of character. Despite the huge ensemble, none of them is overshadowed by the others, and in fact, each character is fully fleshed out and manages to stand out in his or her own way. This is a group that has rehearsed to perfection to make sure each actor has his or her own presence on stage even when performing as an ensemble – which is no easy task!

Lim Kay Siu and Jeffrey Low, who play the uncle and Senior Horse respectively, also give laudable performances with their good singing range and expressive acting.

Sugie, who plays the titular character, was one of the finalists for Project Superstar, and made it to the top seven in Taiwan’s One Million Star 3. So it is no wonder that he has a clear singing voice, and he hits all the right notes, with the right amount of feeling. Inch Chua, who plays his love interest, Junior Horse, is Singapore’s prominent indie singer-songwriter, who made news when she was invited two years ago to South by Southwest to perform. So, Chua’s ability to sing with minimal effort doesn’t surprise. What is surprising is that she can act – and while singing too! As the doomed girlfriend who has to choose between her love for Lao Jiu and her studies, Chua is called upon to deliver some of the more emotional songs, and this is where she shines, as she interjects pathos and pain into each note she sings.

However, the ending of the play feels a bit abrupt, as it doesn’t end on a positive note, which is very unusual in musicals. Musicals usually end on a happy note; the current form as we know it came into existence right after the Great Depression of the 1930s, and therefore tends to still rely on joyful conclusions to appease the audience. Lao Jiu turns its back on this rule, and thus the ending feels a little odd.

The only other little fault that I can find in Lao Jiu is with the placement of the projection of the English translation. Flanking the stage on both sides is really not the best place for the projection, as one has to literally turn one’s head to read the words, and in the process miss what is happening on stage. For those of us whose Mandarin vocabulary is only slightly above a smattering of words, constantly having to read the translations off to the side is not convenient at all. The translation should be projected on the plain dark backdrop upstage. Perhaps this isn’t possible for some technical reason, but I found myself always having to choose between reading the projection and watching the stage – and many times it was a difficult decision.

Having said that, though, Lao Jiu is a fulfilling piece of theatre. Needless to say, it is with much pride and joy that I would go so far as to say that this is the best musical I have seen all year round, and the fact that it comes from our very own shores of this tiny island makes me hopeful that we can produce plays and musicals that rival the best from the West!

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About Sharmila Melissa Yogalingam

Ex-professor, Ex-phd student, current freelance critic, writer and filmmaker.