Why do we buy tickets to watch a musical? What do we want, what do we look for?
Personally I want to be entertained, to watch a musical with a good story well acted, a variety of stimulating songs beautifully sung, and exciting movement and dance.
Shanghai Blues fails on all counts.
Adapted from a 1984 Hong Kong movie written by Raymond To and directed by Tsui Hark, Shanghai Blues is a Mandarin-language musical set during the Japanese invasion of Shanghai, and the years shortly after the war. Wen Chong, a young patriot and a violinist, meets a young woman, Tu Yun, under a bridge. Both are trying to hide from the invading Japanese. In the dark, and unable to see one another clearly, they fall in love. They promise to meet again under the same bridge after the end of the war, but they are separated before they can discover each other’s name. In due course, Wen Chong returns to Shanghai, unaware that the woman he loves is the nightclub singer living in an apartment just below his. In the meantime, another young lady, Dan Lei, has come to Shanghai looking for her fortune, and Tu Yun is persuaded to share lodgings with her. Dan Lei meets Wen Chong and they fall in love.
The start of the musical is quite well done, and the plot setup is not bad. However, the musical goes downhill from then on. The problem is for how long can you suspend disbelief that Wen Chong and Tu Yun fail to recognize one another? They live literally on top of each other, and they work at the same nightclub, Wen Chong as a waiter, and Tu Yun as a singer. But nothing happens between them for nearly the entire show. When you add in Dan Lei as a potential love triangle, that simply does not work because Wen Chong and Tu Yun remain as uninvolved colleagues.
For a musical that comprises a string of bland songs sometimes sung out of tune, punctuated by a few Maoist-style patriotic songs sans the political passion, and you are heading for two hours of boredom. The lyrics are simply appalling, because they do not rhyme, are far too general, do not advance the plot, and do not even sit comfortably with the melody. The distribution of songs is unbalanced: too many in the first half, and insufficient in the second half. It must be noted that neither the composer nor the lyricist are credited in the program notes or the official website.
The main characters are poorly drawn. We do not know what motivates them. We do not know why Wen Chong is still unattached and looking for Tu Yun after eight years of the Japanese war. Nor do we know why he is willing, at the drop of a hat, to jettison Dan Lei, when he has seemingly fallen in love with her. This poor characterization extends to all the other characters. It is not salvaged by dialogue that is trivial and uninteresting. Although there are a few humorous moments, they are few and far between.
The war is curiously out of the picture throughout the musical. Then, after the war, when the communists rise to prominence, this too is glossed over and given facile treatment. The white industrialist is the scapegoat for all the capitalist ills, and on the day he is to take Tu Yun to London with him, he disappears completely. Some of the main actors overact like a Chinese soap opera. The dancing style is distracting, and often the wrong dance style for the given music.
It must be said that William So, Emma Yong, and Celine Rosa Tan sing and act reasonably well. The supporting cast and ensemble are accomplished. The orchestra sits right in the middle of the stage, which is all right, but sometimes I wish it were out of sight because the musicians’ lighting diverts one’s attention away from the actors.
The major reasons why this musical fails, is the lack of conflict between the characters, the poor use of the drama of war and the communist ideology, and a plot that is much too simplistic and utterly predictable. It is burdened by bland music, poor pitching in some of the singers, suboptimal direction, inappropriate choreography, and a set design that is interesting but too distracting.
In short, this musical is a disaster. It needs a radical revision to make it work.
Playwright: Raymond To Kwok-Wai
Director: Goh Boon Teck
Music Director: Philip Tan
Choreographer: Jeffrey Tan
Cast: William So, Mindee Ong, Emma Yong, Celine Rosa Tan, Oliver Pang, Daniel Jenkins, Darius Tan, Judy Tan, Chua Choon Hui, Gordon Choy
10 January 2008