Timeless tale of duty and passion

Ethel Yap (left) and Sugie Phua in Lao Jiu: The Musical.
Ethel Yap (left) and Sugie Phua in Lao Jiu: The Musical.PHOTO: THE THEATRE PRACTICE

REVIEW / THEATRE

LAO JIU: THE MUSICAL

The Theatre Practice

Drama Centre Theatre/Last Friday

In its 27-year history, Kuo Pao Kun's story of Lao Jiu has been adapted into English, Hindi and Japanese; staged in Australia, Japan and India; and recreated again as a musical by The Theatre Practice.

  • BOOK IT / LAO JIU: THE MUSICAL

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

    WHEN: Till April 23, 8pm (Tuesdays to Saturdays), 2.30pm (Fridays to Sundays)

    ADMISSION: $51 to $81 from Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to www.sistic.com.sg)

The dilemma of a young man torn between family duty and artistic dreams is a Singaporean narrative with global resonance.

Lao Jiu is the only son in a family with eight girls. He could win a prestigious scholarship and earn enough to elevate the entire family. Instead, he dreams of learning traditional hand puppetry from his father's best friend.

This version of Lao Jiu: The Musical was first staged in 2012 and, a year later, won a Best Ensemble prize and Best Director award for Kuo Jian Hong at the Life Theatre Awards.

Five years later, it stands out even in a season of musicals with top-notch puppetry (Itsy: The Musical from The Finger Players) and comic antics (Dream Academy's Detention Katong). Lao Jiu: The Musical offers these plus honest emotion and polished individual performances.

There is the naked love between Lao Jiu and his family, rendered in musical numbers such as Worship, Eat Eat Eat and Our Hopes.

The cast's harmonies make the work of composer Eric Ng and lyricist Xiao Han both heart-rending and hilarious. It almost compensates for the dismaying patriarchal attitudes anchoring the script and Lao Jiu's dilemma.

There is the love The Theatre Practice has for every element of its art. The script in Mandarin and dialect, adapted by Liu Xiaoyi, is tight and poignant. Choreography from Seong Hui Xuan is athletic and precise, and is executed by a whip-smart ensemble cast directed by Kuo.

The ensemble works like clockwork, in that even those in the minor roles of Lao Jiu's sisters and brothers-in-law have essential parts to play.

Stand-outs include Johnny Ng as Lao Jiu's father, Yeo Lyle as a puppetry teacher and Peter Ong as the official offering Lao Jiu a prestigious scholarship.

The song fight between Ong's character and that of Lao Jiu - a transformed Sugie Phua, reprising his 2012 role - is the highlight of the play.

Until that number in the second half, Lao Jiu seems an indecisive figure defined only by his family's ambitions for him. Then puppets designed by Benjamin Ho take over the stage and the audience sees Lao Jiu's true talent is to hold a funhouse mirror to authority by monkeying around with art.

Animal words and themes are key to the play. Lao Jiu's father had a tiger tattoo on his back and was a feckless gangster until tamed and impoverished by marriage.

Lao Jiu's country wants him to be a warhorse yoked in service to the nation. But the soft clouds on his blue T-shirt (costume by set designer Chen Szu-Feng) indicate he will follow his solo dreams like Sun Wukong, the playful, powerful monkey king whose story he loves.

Yes, his teacher dies early, cutting off Lao Jiu's connection to traditional arts. Yet one could argue the same was true of Singapore and look at what the arts scene has created here: a truly timeless tale that may never go out of date.

Correction note: An earlier version of the story stated that Lao Jiu: The Musical's choreography is from Seong Hui Xian. This is incorrect. It should be Seong Hui Xuan. We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 10, 2017, with the headline 'Timeless tale of duty and passion'. Print Edition | Subscribe