Mulan follows the Chinese legend of Hua Mulan, the woman who took her aged father’s place in the army under guise as a man, made famous internationally by the Disney animated film of the same name and immortalised in various other TV and film adaptations.
Adapting it from an award winning Taiwanese script, RWS’ all new production of Mulan keeps the legend alive, with a Singaporean twist, starring a combination of local celebrities and foreign talents in this new musical production.
Much of Mulan’s charm lies with its committed and high energy cast. Playing the titular Mulan is Lai Ying Ying, who played her role well. We were particularly excited for her cheeky duet with Zhou Ding Wei, who played General Chun Xie, as they sang a cute love song about ‘dropping the soap’ and asking Chun Xie to help her pick it up in order to admire his chiseled physique. This was definitely one of the better songs in the repertoire, attested to by the loud applause received. Ying Ying also showed off her acting chops in the final scene when, even depressed and on her last legs, takes on a patriotic second wind and returns to the army, out of love for her country.
Apart from Ying Ying, other cast members were also very competent at their roles. Particularly endearing was Lim Wenqi as Shaoqi, the effeminate soldier who put the camp in army camp. Amidst his shrieks and high pitched laughter, Shaoqi easily formed a solid sisterhood with Mulan in the barracks due to their shared ‘effeminate’ features, and filled us with warm feelings as we watched their performance. It’s interesting that this particuar staging of Mulan was so queer heavy, featuring effeminate characters like Shaoqi or explicitly gay characters such as Mulan’s brother, along with the queer undertones of the General’s feelings for Mulan-as-male, a subject that often crops up in history but when portrayed in media, is often played purely for laughs.
We also loved Ann Kok as Mulan’s actual sister Mulian, interjecting with well-timed Singlish for laughs. Despite their frosty and tumultuous relationship, the sisters had a very real moment of connection when the two bonded over Mulan’s decision to go to the army, reconciling their differences and even leading us to almost shedding a tear at the very real emotions that emanated from the scene.
Finally, Ka-Zhao Yi Yang’s role as Guan Fu, Mulan’s childhood admirer, left us with shivers down our spine. Playing the unrequited lover always runs the risk of spilling over into creepy territory, but Yi Yang’s description of Mulan as his ‘little pony’ and always caring for her was anything but. Truly, it was a tragedy when he died in battle against the rambunctious, womanizing Turkish army, played by the very capable ensemble.
No Singaporean adaptation is complete without peppering the script with a liberal dose of Singlish, which Mulan delivered a healthy serving of. The army in particular, was rife with it, including a provocative song that included a very well known cuss word. Apart from the Singlish though, the army itself was also portrayed with recognizable Singaporean influences, sans the actual uniform. Pierre Png played the company Sergeant Major, and was always referred to as ‘Encik’ while he barked out commands. His robust character was well-received by the audience, and we only wish he played a bigger role in this musical.
For all its strong acting, Mulan was hampered somewhat by its bare bones set. It was sufficient at portraying the scenes, but overall not particularly impressive, considering the RWS brand attached to it, and one would have expected something a bit grander to match the scale of the production. The cast’s vocal talents were also obscured somewhat by the choice of venue. The RWS theatre was much too big, which led to problematic acoustics, echoed voices and distorted speech. Perhaps if a restaging were to be done, a smaller space could be considered instead.
If you love the classic Chinese legend, then Mulan does enough to fulfill that desire to see it played out in the flesh. The Chinese musical scene is fast growing, and it’s heartening to see so many enthusiastic audience members supporting a local/foreign co-production . Above all, audience members will walk away from Mulan with a great message as embodied in its final song: one should always try to realize one’s dream, and once you take flight, never look back until you’ve achieved it, no regrets.
Mulan The Musical plays at RWS in Mandarin with English surtitles till 5 February. Limited tickets available here