Review: Laojiu The Musical by The Theatre Practice

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First written by Chinese theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun as a play, Lao Jiu has since seen 2 more revivals in 2005 and 2012, reincarnated as a showstopping musical. This time around, The Theatre Practice returns with a new staging of the hit show, and boy were we glad we managed to catch it.

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Lao Jiu (Sugie Phua), literally “the ninth child”, is the first and only son in his family. Growing up with 8 older sisters is no easy feat, and all the pressure’s on him to dig them out of poverty. Luckily for him, he’s also been blessed with doting family members and leads a charmed life, with his siblings and relatives sending him to school and boiling soup for him, alongside an incredible intelligence and well on his way to winning a prestigious scholarship and fulfilling his familial obligations. Yet, he finds his heart and mind stuck with declining traditional puppetry, and Lao Jiu is torn between family and seeking his own happiness.

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Lao Jiu’s themes have aged surprisingly well even 27 years on from Kuo Pao Kun’s original. This iteration of the play is appropriately enough, directed by his daughter and The Theatre Practice’s Artistic Director Kuo Jian Hong, and effectively draws out the age old battle between dreams and duty. With a rousing, emotional soundtrack by local Mandopop luminaries Eric Ng and Xiaohan and brilliant performances from the spectacular cast and live band, it’s easy to see why Lao Jiu has previously received such critical acclaim and stayed on in the hearts of countless audience members.

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The massive cast consists of Sugie Phua as protagonist Lao Jiu, Yeo Lyle as Shifu, Johnny Ng as the father, Goh Guat Kian as the mother, Peter Ong as Senior Horse, Ethel Yap as Junior Horse, along with the ensemble of Gloria Ang Xiao Teng, Jodi Chan, Isabella Chiam, Benjamin Chow, Edward Choy, Darren Guo, Hang Qian Chou, Xavier Kang, Petrina Kow, Abby Lai Ka Hei, Ric Liu, Vanessa Phang Wan Qing, Katherine Tang, Tay Wei Liang, Natalie Yeap and Benjamin Wong playing various characters.

Lao Jiu is first and foremost, a play about family ties, and the stellar cast really makes their relationship believable onstage. Lao Jiu introduces the entire family in a rousing musical number, and one really feels their familial bonds come through their chemistry. Much of this is courtesy of Seong Hui Xuan’s inspired choreography throughout the musical, well-coordinated and energetically performed. Although Sugie Phua is undoubtedly the star of Lao Jiu, singing with an abundance of emotion about the difficulty of choice and wanting to live the dream no matter what and the stress of growing up, he’s backed up by an incredibly capable ensemble who perfectly embody each of their many roles.

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In many ways, Lao Jiu is a real blast to the past yet urgently relevant at the same time. Chen Szu Feng’s set and costume design really takes you back to the past, with an incredible depiction of traditional Chinese paraphernalia, such as an altar and a grand hall in the house. Johnny Ng and Yeo Lyle as the father and Shifu (the puppet theatre master) have some powerful scenes together as they reflect on the nature of filial obligations. Lao Jiu also includes some comedic scenes, such as mother Goh Guat Kian’s difficult birth of Lao Jiu and a refusal to birth him out of fear that once again, she would disappoint the family with the birth of another girl, an unthinkable dilemma in today’s time. Of the ensemble, Hang Qian Chou was also particularly impressive with his role as a concerned uncle building a room with soundproof walls and airconditioning for Lao Jiu so that he can study better, and played his role with aplomb. Later on, when Lao Jiu puts his entire career at risk, Hang delivers the pain and feeling of betrayal as he questions how Lao Jiu can so easily forego the entire family and put his dreams above their life.

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Peter Ong’s role as school principal Senior Horse brought the authority to his character, and made a showdown between him and Lao Jiu in the second half feel tense and with real stakes at hand. One of the true stars of Lao Jiu turns out to be the beautiful and realistic puppets constructed by Paper Monkey Theatre’s Benjamin Ho, coming to life at the hands of both Shifu and Lao Jiu. In the aforementioned showdown between Laojiu and Senior Horse, the two play out their argument in song, and in a multifacted performance, even manages to use Indonesian wayang kulit puppetry in a fight scene to take the visual aspects to new heights and a real sight to behold.

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All in all, The Theatre Practice’s production of Lao Jiu seals its status as a classic that has serious staying power. Having watched the significant 325th production, Lao Jiu has won our hearts and we deem it one of our absolute favourite musicals of all time, deftly and creatively delivering its timeless message of living one’s own life and not having others dictate it for you, and we hope it continues to be restaged countless times in future as well.

Photo Credit: The Theatre Practice

Performance attended on 20/4/17

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