Shanghai Nights: Liao Zhai Rocks! by The Theatre Practice (Review)
An overseas debut and source of Singaporean pride.
SHANGHAI, CHINA – Presenting their original musical Liao Zhai Rocks! overseas for the very first time, it’s hard not to feel a sense of pride seeing The Theatre Practice’s name displayed across the massive theatre at Shanghai Culture Square. Written by Wu Xi, with soundtrack by Eric Ng and lyrics by Xiaohan, the musical feels only appropriate as debut, being a form of contemporary reinterpretation of a favourite Chinese classic, taking inspiration from Pu Songling’s Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio.
Directed by Kuo Jian Hong, Liao Zhai Rocks! is a relatively familiar tale of boy meets girl, as dashing scholar Sang Xiao (Inred Liang) falls hard and fast for the cheeky, charming Ying Ning (Sing China! finalist and Theatre Practice regular Joanna Dong). But little does he know that this is a tale of forbidden love and dangerous lust – Ying Ning is a fox spirit and Sang Xiao is a human. As their lives collide and their relationship develops, they begin to encounter other supernatural forces and spirits that threaten to tear them apart, and it is all they can do to hold on to their love, and pray it sees them through to the end.
Thematically and narratively, Liao Zhai Rocks! is in itself an audacious work, bringing the world of rock into a period-style drama based off a work seeking to reveal the foibles of human nature. It is then oddly fascinating to watch these disparate elements come together, often resulting in scenes that utilise kitsch and camp to their full power, resulting in a production that is simultaneously ancient yet fiercely modern. One feels that Liao Zhai Rocks! is both a homage to classic Chinese TV adaptations of such classics, as well as the Western musical, a kind of theatrical beast that manages to entertain and amuse. Plenty of tongue-in-cheek humour is seen throughout this work, from numbers like 何去何从, acting as a genderbent “Belle” from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast as the entire town comes together to praise and admire Sang Xiao, or the many, many moments of adult humour scattered throughout the script, in line with the original Strange Tales From A Chinese Studio’s unabashed approach to lust, sex and human fallibility.
The 1,800 seater Shanghai Culture Square is by no means an easy space to perform in, with the stage perhaps two times the size of the already massive Esplanade one back home in Singapore. While there are times the stage threatens to swallow up the cast with its size, the set helps transport audiences straight to the scene and era of the narrative, with effective, obvious set pieces that make it obvious we’re by a lakeside or the hot depths of hell. In addition, part of what makes Liao Zhai Rocks! such a source of price is the more than capable cast, many of them reprising their roles from the 2016 edition (and some even from the original 2010 one).
As gullible, pretty-boy Sang Xiao, Inred Liang embodies the role perfectly, his voice clear and his innocent appearance a perfect guise to the lecherous man beneath. Inred’s interactions with onstage love interest Joanna Dong, as fox spirit Ying Ning, are a joy to watch as they flirt and tease each other. Joanna shines especially bright in songs such as 爱情没什么好怪, allowing the sweetness of her voice to come through as music director Julian Wong on violin lets his notes soar, while also showing off her acting chops, as she moves light and speedy as a fox across the stage, sharing a strong father-daughter bond with Liu Xiaoyi onstage, himself fully embodying the mischievous, cunning nature of the fox spirit he plays.
Time spent in rehearsals has obviously paid off, as every single cast member feels comfortable onstage with each other, playing off each other’s high energy and delivering a worthy performance. Sugie Phua, as the bumbling demon catcher Cheng Ban Xian, is hilarious to watch onstage with all his antics, while Ethel Yap steals each scene she appears in as the ghostly San Niang, her voice perfectly controlled and arresting in numbers like 水草, with the two later spending most of Act 2 in each other’s presence and navigating a complicated past relationship. Of the ensemble, it is Frances Lee, despite only having a minor role as Granny Meng, who commands attention in the Act 2 opening number, giving good face and a ferocious over the top performance allowing her to chew the scene and easily become a fan favourite. The ensemble shows off tight, sharp movement and teamwork, with strong cohesion with the backstage crew to enable fast costume and adapt to the quick set changes, performing Seong Huixuan’s energetic choreography to the best of their abilities that worked in spite of the gigantic stage. The live music manages to soar and fill the entirety of the theatre, lifting each song, illustrating every scene, and truly feeling like a supernatural period drama gone rock and roll.
In essence, what Liao Zhai Rocks! displays is a local theatre company at its most professional, featuring a cast and creative team who were more than ready to rise to the challenge of performing an original musical in a foreign country. This is a work that showcases just a hint of what Singapore theatre is capable of, and hopefully, left a lasting impression on all those who managed to catch it while on tour. One does hope to see bigger and more Singaporean representation internationally in time to come, but for now, Liao Zhai Rocks! marks a humble but respectable foray into China, and a hearty congratulations to The Theatre Practice in its entirety for pulling off such an impressive production.
Photos Courtesy of The Theatre Practice
Performance attended 29/3/19
Liao Zhai Rocks! played at Shanghai Culture Square in Shanghai, China from 28th to 31st March 2019, as part of the Shanghai International Music Festival 2019.