Liao Zhai Rocks!
The Theatre Practice
Drama Centre Theatre/ Friday evening
The epic rock musical Liao Zhai Rocks! by The Theatre Practice is an exuberant contemporary romp that breathes life into musty Chinese tales of yore.
First performed in 2010, the two-hour show mines its narratives from Chinese author Pu Songling's classic Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio, a compilation of about 400 supernatural tales which mixes fables and love stories with satire.
The musical deserves points alone for sheer ambition - staging a musical on such a scale is a tall order these days, but the crew rises to the occasion.
The cast's outfits - dramatic, flowing court robes in variegated shades - are intricately designed by costume whizzes Saksit and Phisit of Tube Gallery. Stage designer Wong Chee Wai's pliable set includes a fossil-like structure which easily transforms the space from bustling marketplace to the depths of Hell.
Together with sophisticated work from lighting designer Genevieve Peck, they take the audience into a mystical, olden world where mortals and demi-gods alike roam the earth.
The story opens in the gloomy underworld, where the soul of scholar Sang Xiao (Taiwanese actor Inred Liang) tarries, recounting his past. It then flashes between scenes of his encounters with Ying Ning (Joanna Dong), a kind-hearted fox spirit, and Feng San Niang (Ethel Yap), a lost spirit awaiting reincarnation, who both fall for him.
The plot is complicated by the appearance of demon hunter Cheng Ban Xian (a side-splitting Sugie Phua), hell-bent on exorcising forces like Ying and her father. It turns out that he and Feng were a couple in their past lives, and were torn apart when she drank a potion that doomed her soul to purgatory.
As the characters journey between the mortal and nether realms, they confront their mortality, and contemplate their worldly existence, lending some much-needed depth to the show.
"Humans are just ghostly spirits covered by flesh," remarks the sage Tian Zi Zai (Yeo Lyle), tasked with guarding the door where spirits pass on to the next world.
At one point, the ensemble sings "No one can escape the circle of life" in an energetic, razzle-dazzle dance number (kudos to co-director and choreographer George Chan as well).
The cast, while not uniformly strong, are a joy to watch - the charismatic Liang sells his numbers with a solid, steady vibrato. Dong, who starred in the 2010 staging, shines again as the pitiful Ying Ning, and turns in a lovely take on local Chinese singer Tanya Chua's hit Amphibian, specially re-written for the show.
But the definite scene-stealer for me is actress Frances Lee, who sinks her teeth into the bit role of Granny Meng, dispensing amnesia-inducing soup with a whole lot of sass.
Music arranger Bang Wenfu - and the band led by conductor Julian Wong - delivers on the music front, from lilting violin strings for the ballads to the explosive drums and thunderous guitar riffs heralding King Yama's return to the underworld.
I do feel that some characters and scenes could have been better developed. For instance, Sang's background and motives are not fully outlined, and the emotional climax of Feng and Cheng's reunion is glossed over as the show hurtles from one scene to the next.
That aside, Liao Zhai Rocks! is a spectacular production that hits the right notes and serves up ancient Chinese folklore as an entertaining extravaganza, palatable for all.
Book It/Liao Zhai Rocks!
Where: Drama Centre Theatre, National Library, 100 Victoria Street
When: Till Apr 17, 8pm from Tuesday to Saturday, 2.30pm on weekends. No show on Monday.
Admission: $51 to $81 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)
Info: Go to www.practice.org.sg/en/