Promising journey

Na Young Jeon and Nathan Hartono play husband and wife in The Great Wall: One Woman's Journey.
Na Young Jeon and Nathan Hartono play husband and wife in The Great Wall: One Woman's Journey.PHOTO: CRISPIAN CHAN

Strong singing and a unique story lift this feminine perspective on the Great Wall

REVIEW / MUSICAL

THE GREAT WALL: ONE WOMAN'S JOURNEY

Glowtape Productions

Drama Centre Theatre/Last Saturday


The Great Wall: One Woman's Journey hits the right note if Glowtape Productions was going for a pretty, uplifting, marketable product that should extend its local run and travel overseas.

The singing is strong and sometimes spectacular. Sets by Leo Yuen Hon Wai range from realistic to imaginatively surreal, notably in Act Two. Here, planks become forests, a surging river or a bridge, thanks to choreography from Aaron Khek and Ix Wong.

The story is also unique. Playwright Jean Tay wrote the script based on the popular legend of Meng Jiang Nu, whose husband Fan Qi Liang died while working on the Great Wall of China. Meng Jiang Nu's tears cracked the wall and her spirit defeated the pride of Emperor Qin Shi Huang.

The original legend demands Grand Guignol-style opera. The musical directed by Australia's Darren Yap stays, however, in the emotional and musical spectrum preferred by Disney.

This is a good choice for a familyfriendly cartoon, but a limiting choice for a musical that aims to be the next Miss Saigon, according to the production team. The performers seem to pitch themselves just below the dramatic heights their roles should call for.

As the Emperor, George Chan is adequate, but never mad enough or powerful enough to impress in songs such as Let There Be Blood or One Hundred Years, when the character is driven mad by dreams of those he has killed.

  • BOOK IT / THE GREAT WALL: ONE WOMAN'S JOURNEY

  • WHERE: Drama Centre Theatre, Level 3 National Library Building, 100 Victoria Street

    WHEN: Until July 30; 8pm (Tuesdays to Fridays), 3 and 8pm (Saturdays), 3pm (Sundays)

    ADMISSION: $58 to $128 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg). For corporate and school bookings of 20 or more tickets, call 9699-3372 or e-mail catherine@thegreatwallmusical.com

Similarly, Dutch-Korean singer Na Young Jeon and Singaporean heart-throb Nathan Hartono are well paired, visually and vocally as Meng Jiang Nu and the fugitive scholar Fan. But their love blooms by the laws of storytelling, not naturally. Their separation is only mildly tragic.

Fan's death at the Emperor's hands is shown so quickly that there is little visual or aural impact on the audience. Intensity is again absent when Meng Jiang Nu learns of her husband's fate. Barely a moment passes before she begins If I Am Alone, ironically one of the more striking compositions, and well-delivered.

Music and lyrics by British composer David Shrubsole - who also conducts the live ensemble - suits the tone of the musical: charming, entertaining, unlikely to define the genre. Act One's most notable composition is The Women At Work, where the voices of the female ensemble contrast and harmonise. In Act Two, again the women have a chance to shine. The male ensemble is tragically underutilised. Meng Jiang Nu encounters a band of ruffian brothers en route to the Wall, but their part is to witness her for a moment, not speed the story along with song.

This said, The Great Wall is worth a watch. It rewards ticket-holders with good singing, a unique story and the promise of something even better in the future. Musicals developed in larger countries have the luxury of being developed onstage, over time, before reaching the best theatres. It is a journey as long and arduous as Meng Jiang Nu's and a journey that this musical could easily complete.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2017, with the headline 'Promising journey'. Print Edition | Subscribe