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Lao Jiu (2012)


 

Based on a 1990 play by Kuo Pao Kun, this musical is a substantially revised version of the 2005 production by The Theatre Practice. Both musical versions were directed by Kuo Jian Hong, Pao Kun’s daughter.

The story revolves around Lao Jiu (Sugie), a teenager who is the ninth child and the only son. He is good in his studies and has been invited by the chief examination official, Senior Horse (Jeffrey Low), to sit for an examination that, if successful, will grant him a prestigious university scholarship. Unfortunately, Lao Jiu is more interested in following his uncle (Lim Kay Siu) to become a puppeteer, a dying art form. In the meantime Lao Jiu falls for Senior Horse’s pretty assistant, Junior Horse (Inch Chua). The entire family including the girlfriend are all against his decision to abandon the exam in order to pursue his puppeteer dream.

The performance is slick, with good singers. The ensemble scenes in the first half are humorous and carried out with impeccable timing. The overall story pacing is satisfactory, although there are moments which are a bit draggy. The choreography is probably the best thing in this performance.

The music is composed by Eric Ng, with lyrics by Xiao Han. The best song is the love ballad “Two of Us”, sung by Lao Jiu and Junior Horse. All the songs are in the tradition of Mando-pop (an offshoot of Canto-pop), where the accents of the music do not correspond to the accents of the words, which I object to. Let me explain. Take the English lyrics "Happy birthday to you", you should not emphasize the syllables "-py" or "to". Unfortunately Mando-pop does not care which words are accented, resulting in some distortion of the lyrics.

On the whole, the music arrangement by Bang Wenfu is good. In particular, the arrangement for the more humorous ensemble pieces in the first half are most effective, and this is supported by excellent choreography. Unfortunately, I feel that the second half is over-orchestrated, so that the mood becomes too sombre and uncalled for.

My main criticism of the musical is in the character development and the story. We do not know the background and motivation of the main characters. Why is Lao Jiu so obsessed in becoming a puppeteer? Why does his girlfriend object to his dreams, and what is her background? Why does Senior Horse want so much for Lao Jiu to take the scholarship exam? Why does Lao Jiu's puppeteer uncle, who apparently agrees with his father, not stop Lao Jiu becoming a puppeteer?

There is no character development, no character arc. None of the protagonists, including Lao Jiu, change their views and decisions. There is no self-doubt, no internal struggles. None of the family members seem willing to back Lao Jiu. When Lao Jiu's father shouts at him and asks him to leave, he does not seem to regret his overreaction, and there is no attempt by him to try to forgive his errant son. This failure to give the father a character arc wastes a golden opportunity.

Despite these criticisms, the production values are good, and overall, the musical is enjoyable.

Reviewed by Kenneth Lyen

28 July 2012