Arts musical Review The Theatre Practice Theatre

★★★★☆ Review: The Soldier and His Virtuous Wife by The Theatre Practice

Traditional Yuan Opera becomes a high energy pop musical for modern audiences.

Every couple probably has a funny story to share with friends, whether it’s how they met, or humorous anecdotes from their time together. But how often does a man end up flirting with his wife because he doesn’t recognise her? That’s one story that The Theatre Practice (Practice) have decided to bring to the wider audience, with their new staging of Mandarin musical The Soldier and His Virtuous Wife.

Directed by Kuo Jian Hong, The Soldier and His Virtuous Wife is a modern day adaptation of the traditional Yuan opera Qiu Hu Flirts With His Wife, where Qiu Hu, an unlucky new groom has been drafted into the army. Over the next ten years, his wife Mei Ying dutifully waits for him to return, rebuffing other martial offerings and refusing to believe that he’s fallen on the battlefield. When Qiu Hu returns however, he spies a beautiful woman in the mulberry fields, not realising it’s actually his wife. Can their love withstand this unusual instance of philandering?

Mixing entertainment, education and all the makings of a big time musical, The Soldier and His Virtuous Wife is a joy to experience from start to end. While the simple story does feel stretched out at times, playwright/lyricist Lo Pei-An has done a commendable job of adapting the script, with well-written characters and bumbling villains, sharp wordplay and puns, and at its heart, a winsome, relatable tale of how it takes forgiveness and love to make a relationship work.

Right from the beginning, The Soldier and His Virtuous Wife comes in blazing with energy, with Sugie Phua, Ang Xiao Ting, Joel Tan and Katherine Tang, stepping in front of the curtains to welcome the audience and warm us up, getting us excited for Qiu Hu and Mei Ying’s wedding. With peak enthusiasm, we welcome the performance with loud applause, as the curtains open to herald the entire cast for the big opening number. What director Kuo Jian Hong does so well, both here and throughout the show, is how there is never a dull moment, keeping the audience constantly engaged, be it with the ambitious choreography (by Seong Huixuan) or even the pantomime-like improv elements, when characters break the fourth wall.

The Soldier and His Virtuous Wife is also a gorgeous sight to behold, featuring high production quality in every aspect. Max Tan’s costumes feature silhouettes from a more dynastic Chinese era, yet adding a vivid burst of colour to the cast, complementing each other amidst their complex prints. There are times even metallic prints can create the illusion of cloth as armour. Chen Szu-Feng’s set is bordered by a floral frame signifying the coming of spring, adorned with tiny lights that beautifully illuminate the flowers’ outlines even in the dark. Meanwhile, on stage, there is economical use of space, eschewing realism for more abstract, moveable set pieces that transform from home to battlefield, helped by Genevieve Peck’s lighting design, bathing the stage in red to symbolise the fortune of marriage, to green to bring to mind nature in the mulberry fields.

Whether side characters or protagonists, the cast of The Soldier and His Virtuous Wife are always giving their 110% in every scene, and are evidently well-rehearsed, playing off each other’s energy and catching each other’s lines at the right time. Director Kuo has done well to create a strong chemistry amidst the cast of varying stage experience, and every actor plays off each other well, often feeling like they’re genuinely reacting to each other and an actual family. Despite it being his first time onstage, Cavin Soh, as Qiu Hu, not only looks the part of an everyman and innocent husband, but embodies Qiu Hu’s endearingly foolish personality. Fellow lead Joanna Dong, as his wife Mei Ying, is a force to be reckoned with, as she is given the right songs to show off her vocal range and control, while also disarmingly charming in her performance, able to go from sweet housewife to fiery chili padi in an instant. Together, they make for a believable new couple madly in love, and later on, the tension between them resulting from the misunderstanding is palpable, as one finds themselves rooting for their relationship to come out unscathed.

Side characters such as Master Luo (Yeo Lyle), Qiu Hu’s Mother (Ng Mun Poh), the Officer (Sugie Phua) and the Matchmaker (Katherine Tang) are given enough moments to make them memorable, each actor imbuing their character with distinct personality traits and quirks in both body and voice, often hamming it up for comic relief. But it is the dynamic trio of Ric Liu, Ang Xiao Ting and Joel Tan who end up stealing every scene they appear in. Ric plays Master Li, the rags to riches money-lender who cooks up a nefarious scheme to gain Mei Ying’s hand in marriage, while Xiao Ting and Joel play his bumbling, simpering sidekicks. Beyond genuinely impressive acrobatics and magic tricks, making plenty of tongue-in-cheek references and jokes, the trio also perform a spectacular number about how powerful money is, with homages to classical Hollywood choreography as they dance about with giant coins.

Adding to this energy is the band, led by Music Director August Lum, who provides dynamic live music to accompany each number alongside vivid sound effects. Composer Chen Yang’s music also showcases a diverse range of styles, and alongside August’s surprisingly unique arrangements that reference familiar favourites such as ABBA’s Money Money Money and the Queen of the Night aria with both traditional Chinese instruments like the huqin and Western instruments, makes each song a delight.

The cast also have the vocal chops to play fully into each number, with more comedic pieces warranting karaoke microphones, while the more dramatic numbers are played seriously, all of which the cast navigate smoothly, while performing impressive choreography and movement. One again, this is also thanks to how director Kuo has honed a keen eye for both physical humour and dramatic ensemble movements. Particularly impressive is the climactic scene where Qiu Hu flirts with Mei Ying in the mulberry field, as the ensemble wield branches and surround Mei Ying, as if she were a nature goddess protected by plant life itself, gently swaying as they shield her from Qiu Hu.

The course of true love never did run smooth, but with the right amount of comedy, a capable cast and catchy songs, it becomes the perfect recipe for an entertaining romp of a show. Practice has once again shown that they’re one of the best when it comes to creating memorable original Mandarin musicals, a necessity in this post-pandemic world, with audience members looking for work that puts a smile on their face. Unafraid to celebrate both the cheesy side of love while addressing the importance of communication in any relationship, The Soldier and His Virtuous Wife fulfils that role with glee, and you’ll find yourself laughing and clapping along to this joyous, feel-good show.

Courtesy of The Theatre Practice, Photo by Tan Ngiap Heng (The Pond Photography)

The Soldier and His Virtuous Wife plays from 30th March to 16th April 2023 at the Drama Centre. Tickets available here

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