The Bums and the Bridge
From the start, Shanghai Blues looks like it was tailored to be a hot ticket for the Huayi Festival. It's a musical (always a crowd-pleaser), a period piece (colonial Shanghai! Cheongsams and tuxedos!), and it's adapted from the 1984 Hong Kong movie of the same title (meaning that it's safe, familiar territory for first-time theatregoers, in the grand tradition of other film-to-stage musicals like The Producers, Billy Elliot and Puteri Gunung Ledang).
There's a great lineup of talent, too - leads are played by Cantopop star William So and fresh local cinema star Mindee Ong, with support from solid theatre-based actors. Behind the scenes we've got Raymond To, the original screenwriter, collaborating with Singapore composer/music arranger Philip Tan to create a score and libretto. Plus, Goh Boon Teck's directing. With so much invested, how could this show this go wrong?
Pretty easily, in fact. Over and over again, Shanghai Blues makes the viewer cringe at its slipshod singing and dancing; at its failure to command the grand expanse of the theatre space; at the lurches of the script into absurdity. It seems to be one of those productions that has cared so much about being marketable that it has compromised itself on fundamentals. Quite simply, it's forgotten to be good theatre.
To be fair, the whole thing works up to a level. The story's a classic, sentimental spiel about a boy named Lim Wen Chong and a girl named Tu Yun: they meet under a bridge during a blackout in World War II, fall in love, then get separated without even seeing each other's faces. Fast-forward eight years: she's a nightclub singer and he's a waiter; neither one has any idea the other's the mysterious stranger they've desperately lusted after over for nearly a decade. Inevitably, they take an instant dislike to each other, get embroiled in a weird love triangle with country bumpkin-turned-beauty queen Dan Lei, and finally discover the truth in a big ol' sappy-happy ending.
All in all, it's actually a decent musical text; cheesy-cheesy-Chinesey, but that works with the genre. Through it all, the sweet music blends in almost seamlessly with the cutesy dialogue, serving up a mix of familiar period songs, covers from William So's repertoire and original compositions. And of course, the costumes by Anthony Tan were divine.
Yet from the very first scene, the cracks are visible in the production. As the ensemble sings Rose, Rose I Love You against the sound of bombs falling echoes in the background, we know we're supposed to be touched by the sense of a sophisticated spirit of a city struggling to survive in the midst of war. But we're distracted by how their choreography is out of sync, how their singing is just a bit flat, how tiny the group of actors looks, engulfed by the enormous proscenium stage.
Certainly, Goh's done some magic with his direction - he's a master of the human tableau, consistently conjuring up some lovely stage pictures with the ensemble. But too often, he finds it's impossible to convey a convincing sense of emotion or place with the empty grandeur of the Esplanade Theatre. The chaos of the Japanese Occupation, the decadence of a whisky-sponsored beauty pageant in a cabaret - he doesn't manage to convey these things with the cast he's got on his hands. And patently, the group just needs more rehearsals, both in footwork and in throatwork. Singing and dancing are the very heart of a musical, after all.
Thankfully, leading man William So puts in a solid performance, both as a singer and actor - he's got great stage presence, and pulls off that "I'm a young idealist, long live China" crap so well you can almost swallow it. The same praise can be given to Emma Yong, who amuses thoroughly in her role as the cutesy, high-spirited Dan Lei, and as Celine Rosa Tan, who sparkles in her woefully small part as the nightclub manager Lin Jiao Jiao.
I'm aggrieved at Daniel Jenkins's uneven voice - I'd heard he'd done well in Cabaret. Still, I'd blame the more hair-raising moments of his performance on bad writing rather than talent. His role, as the British industrialist Clifton Livingstone, invites the worst of Chinese cultural insensitivity - there's no sense of depth at all in his fascination with his songbird Tu Yun, no sense of regret at how she uses him as a tool to help Wen Chong while giving utterly nothing back. Instead, the writers garner cheap laughs galore by having him struggle with Mandarin speech (which he nonetheless appears to understand pretty well), while letting his character break into madly inappropriate Sinatraesque songs (Strangers in the Night?) as a counterpoint to the sultry Mandarin music going on around him. And while we're on the topic of racism, could I just mention that I didn't find it in good taste to have a character who's a Chinese person masquerading as an exaggeratedly accented Sikh doorman? (Singapore Chinese cinema has a consistent history of mocking and stereotyping Indian Singaporeans. Come on, theatre people; we're better than that.)
However, the biggest disappointment in the cast is leading lady Mindee Ong. It's a case of tragic miscasting, for while anyone who's watched 881 can tell she can be a show-stopping actress, her singing voice just isn't strong enough yet to hold a steady tune in a solo number - and yet, believe it or not, she's been asked to play a famous cabaret chanteuse (ouch, ouch, ouch). Plus, Tu Yun is ageing, stately and hot-tempered, a character description which fits uneasily with Ong's petite, elfin looks. Scenes between her and Emma Yong are particularly incongruous - Yong is an older, more experienced actress, and yet she has to play the innocent younger protégée to Ong's character. One gets the sense that the only reason Ong was cast was to draw in the getai-cinema crowd: not because she would be good in this role, but because she'd get bums on seats.
That's one of those mantras in Singapore theatre, isn't it? Get bums on seats, it's all about bums on seats. Yes, I've heard the apologias: Singapore cannot sustain a mature theatre scene unless new audiences are developed; to be commercial or populist or simply sensitive to the needs of first-time viewers does not entail losing integrity; and for fuck's sake, it's no fun playing to empty houses.
And yes, I do believe that theatre groups ought to know how to work the market. But if a group advertises fabulously and then delivers sub-standard goods, it's ultimately shafting the entire industry; it's making those bums on seats so jaded that they'll never come back for a second shot of showbiz, by that or any other local company.
(And mind you, this isn't the same as a JBJ or a Cheek or a Real Men, Fake Orgasms - however sensationalistically these were marketed, these were understood to be smaller-scale first-time made-in-Singapore shebangs, making their flaws a tad more forgivable. But when you've cast non-theatre celebs, ripped off a screenplay, and recycled most of your music from the guest star's previous CD tracks - good God! Then you've got to got to got to get the fundamentals right, because no-one is going to give you consolation points for originality or courage.)
I haven't really talked about one last bit of the production, which other reviewers have called the best part of the show. The set, designed by Chia Yu Hsien, is pretty damn cool - the orchestra's seated in the centre of the stage, with the framework of a bridge curling around them; one side of the bridge is adjustable via the manipulation of colossal strings to suggest a number of different settings. And definitely, I oohed and aahed at the concertina mechanism for the first half hour. Then after that, it got boring, a one-trick pony, while in the meantime I positively detested the ugly mottled brown backdrop that was supposed to represent both "a cracked wall" and "a hilly horizon with a glimpse of hope beyond". For all its wizardry, the set turns out to be just another component of a show that's based more on sparkle than on substance - although unlike the rest of Shanghai Blues, it actually did try to do something new.
I know I'm not the only one who's upset by the poor production of this musical. I've seen others at the theatre and on the blogosphere complaining about the production values in the same grumpy way. And as we know from If There're Seasons, it is both possible and desperately important to create new Singapore musicals in Mandarin that actually work. Meanwhile, if all you're hawking is glitz, you're breaking that bridge of trust between company and audience. That unspoken contract: give me something worth my time, something interesting, something good.
Disclosure: The reviewer worked with Toy Factory as the playwright of 251. He was also in the ACS (Independent) Drama Club with Chia Yu Hsien twelve years ago.
Yi-Sheng's First Impression
This musical runs the gamut from aww-delightful to oh-my-god-stop-doing-that. It's an adaptation of Raymond To's 1984 film of the same title, given a rather decent libretto and score treatment by the original screenwriter and composer Philip Tan, with sweet songs mostly blending in seamlessly with the entertaining dialogue, supporting a classic tale of separated lovers. Sure, the plot's long and cheesily sentimental and nationalistic without irony, but I can accept that as being symptomatic of the genre. What I can't stand, however, are the failures of production values on the side of the company - the choreography is always just out of sync, the singing is occasionally flat, and behind the concertina wizardry of the adjustable bridge, the set features the ugliest backdrop I've seen in years. And while William So turns in a solid performance as the male protagonist with charismatic support from Emma Yong and Celine Rosa Tan, I baulk at the decision to cast Mindee Ong, who spoils her leading lady role as a nightclub chanteuse by delivering consistently bad singing performances. The less said about Daniel Jenkins's role, the better (although a lot of blame here falls on the head of the writers, who had him sing god-awful, utterly misplaced excerpts of Frank Sinatra songs). Thankfully, however, the show ends quite well, leaving the viewer with merely a bland taste in the mouth.
Kenneth's First Impression
High production values alone can sometimes carry a musical if they successfully create a sense of scale. However, despite the best efforts of Shanghai Blues' impressive production designers and crew (especially Chia Yu Hsien whose set design served the play so effectively and imaginatively), the inherent weaknesses of the script, direction and acting performances remained all too glaring in this case. The cartoonish storyline, for example, was so contrived and the lines so over-the-top that the audience was laughing out loud during what was supposed to be a moving romantic scene - I am genuinely shocked that the play earned the acclaim it did when it premiered in the 1990s. This production also failed to capture the danger, urgency and drama that were supposed to come from the play being set against the backdrop of war and civil unrest (in Shanghai circa the 1930s and 40s). The colourless ensemble, surprisingly rough vocal performance by lead actress Mindee Ong and an unfortunately cast Daniel Jenkins as a "Mandarin-speaking" (and I use that term loosely) Caucasian businessman did not help matters. Thankfully, Hong Kong recording artiste William So was relatively successful as the male romantic lead, thanks to his strong and steady vocals, and Emma Yong and Celine Rosa Tan turned in spirited performances, with Yong's touches of comedy being particularly well-played.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /