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I Have a Date with Spring


 

I Have a Date with Spring

BIG STARS AND BRIGHT LIGHTS, BUT WHERE'S THE MAGIC?

Reviewed by Daniel Teo

Cast: Eileen Tan, Emma Yong, Thomas Ong, Constance So,
Date: 14 Oct 1999
Venue: the Victoria Theatre
Rating: **½ (out of five stars)

When I Have a Date with Spring was staged for the first time, it was such a success that critics and the public were united in their praise for the performance. Toy Factory brought back the same play for the second season for it seemed that they could do no wrong by staging again their runaway hit one more time. And so I waited for my date with spring to come. I waited and waited. I waited for three hours but sadly she didn't turn up.

A sense of waste permeated the whole play, from the set to the acting to the song-and-dance routines. For a start the whole set was all wrong. No doubt a large expense had gone into the set with its huge panels of walls with several glass panels but the look did not generate the feel of a sleazy nightclub in the sixties. Instead it looked like sterilized version of how a nightclub should look - there was nothing to suggest the poignant pathos that went behind those pastel-coloured walls. In fact the set had no impact whatsoever - it stirred no emotional chord in the audience and evoked nothing from the past. The only thing it did was remind the audience that no nightclub in the sixties looked like that.

And then the musical started proper and the same sense of waste swept over the audience in one overwhelming wave. For those who don't know what I Have a Date with Spring is about (where were you? Didn't you rant against the MTV played incessantly over the television?), the musical charts the lives of four nightclub singers from their salad days to ripe old age. In between these years are lessons of love, friendship, fate and ultimately life. It is the stuff Best Picture movies are made of. The poignancy of the musical won it a myriad of fans both in its birth land of Hong Kong and in Singapore. The musical is anchored by the character of Yao Xiao Die, the most successful of the four friends in terms of sanity and career but alas not in love. After years spent playing love hide-and-seek with the band's saxophonist Shen Jia How, she comes back to Hong Kong alone while Jia How pines for her in New York. It is really Xiao Die's story of confronting this mystery we call life. What the play really excels in is its exploration of love in many forms, among friends and lovers and how it metamorphoses throughout the years, giving the musical the multilayered texture it deserves.

The acting throughout the night suggested that the actors and actresses worked hard. Period. There was little chemistry between the four friends and it was sad considering it is precisely this friendship that forms the very foundation of the whole play's emotional quotient. The banter seemed like they were really working at creating the jolly good ol' feeling they wanted us to feel but there was too much work there and the result was a forced and contrived attempt at warmth. Little moments of tenderness were a rarity the audience hankered for throughout the entire play.

Eileen Tan was the strangest enigma of the whole night: you wonder why she was paid so much to perform such a minor role. She took on the role with gusto, using her shrill "I'm-the-bitch-of-the-show" voice - an equivalent of finger nails on the black board. Other than provoking the other actresses and being a general pain in the ass, Eileen had very little to do. You do start to wonder why they couldn't have employed an unknown to play this role.

Singing skills on all sides were weak (except Emma Yong) and the songs had little emotional resonance when you couldn't even hear what they were singing. However Alec Tok as Lu Lu's son had a powerful voice and commanded the audience's attention with his Cantonese rap. Other than that, singing was not a highlight that night.

Mind you with all that is said, I Have a Date with Spring is not all that bad - it was entertaining and it did have its high moments. Yet you do leave the theater feeling a sense of waste, of wishing that such a perennial favorite could have been done a lot better. With such a wealth of materials in terms of appeal and the wonderful script, it is hard not to feel sad when the same people who had seen both plays shake their heads when they come out of the latter. Don't let this review stop you from watching the musical - just don't expect to spring to burst into enchanting colors of nostalgic hue when you step into The Victoria Theatre.

What was most unforgivable was the unsettling transition between the flashbacks and present day reality. Transitions were clumsy and intrusive when the cast worked so hard at trying to create the magical nostalgia for the past gone by. Costume changes were awkward - Xiao Die had to discard her jacket and literally (as well as figuratively) let down her hair whenever she traveled back in time, but the transitions between the scenes were so fast she was frequently sans jacket and hair down when she came back to modern day. I was left wondering whether I was still stuck in 'Good Women of Szechuan' when Xiao Die threw the wig she wore onto the floor with a jarring thump, shattering whatever suspension of disbelief the play tried to create.

Constance So as Xiao Die was commendable considering that I Have a Date with Spring is her debut theater performance. She mastered the misty-eyed look of a women haunted by her past whenever she had to look pensively retrospective and was suitably fresh-faced when the audience was transported to her earlier years. Her transition from the ingenue to Woman (with a capital "W") was smooth and believable even if stage directions in certain scenes to signify the passage of time were clumsy.

Thomas Ong as Shen Jia How, the aimless drifter was an example of successful casting. He was really Shen Jia How that night with his lackadaisical air and shrug of shoulder. Emma Yong was outstanding as the live wire Lu Lu, with her over the top mannerisms and spot on comedic touch. What really impressed me was how well she could sing and it didn't help that the juxtaposition that night made it even more apparent. Such a riot of fun, you missed that voice whenever she left the stage.

[This review first appeared in The Flying Inkpot.]