Ask any avid Chinese theatre goer about Lao Jiu, it will surely ring a bell. After all, Lao Jiu has endured 27 glorious years in the local theatre scene! Its first inception dated back in 1990 when the late theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun was invited by Singapore Arts Festival to debut it at the Victoria Theatre.
Fast forward more than two decades, Lao Jiu is making a familiar re-entrance onto local shores, much to the delight of theatre aficionados. We last saw Lao Jiu back in 2012, when Kuo Jian Hong decided to create a complete artistic overhaul to Kuo Pao Kun’s acclaimed stage play after deciding that it is one of the most accessible works out of the latter’s repertoire to be adapted into a musical. Renowned music veterans like Xiaohan (lyricist), Eric Ng (composer) and Bang Wenfu (arranger) were invited to create new songs for the re-introduction of the musical.
Lao Jiu tells the story of a promising young lad, who, as his nickname suggests, is the ninth member among his eight female siblings. He was born with a flair for academics, and was well considered a prodigy among his family and peers alike. However, the struggle came when he was identified by celebrated War Horse Foundation to take on a prestigious scholarship by going through an “imperial examination”. He was thus torn between his childhood love for puppetry and having to answer to his family’s much anticipated expectations.
In the latest run, we see Sugie Phua back in the titular role as Lao Jiu. He is no stranger to the theatre scene, with popular works like December Rain and Innamorati under his belt. Sugie exuded exemplary stage charisma and his dexterity on stage is on full display in Lao Jiu.
While the display of puppetry was a delight to watch, it seemed as though Kuo Pao Kun already envisioned a down-spiralling trend to the trade. In the digital age, puppetry is a long lost performing art that does not seem to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel. This inevitable “demise” was examined by Lao Jiu’s shifu, or the puppet master played by Yeo Lyle. He sang of how both on-stage and down-stage, the atmosphere was still, if not stagnant. Suffering from a terminal illness, his deteriorating health seemed to foreshadow the imminent fate of the art. It was hard not to notice that the show is a teary farewell tribute to puppetry.
In an era where tradition and filial piety are steep concepts in Asian culture, many audiences would be able to resonate to Lao Jiu’s struggles. After all, the traditional Asian mindset that boys are of a coveted offspring is still a deep-rooted topic that is well regarded by many. In Lao Jiu, for example, we saw how exhilarated the parents of Lao Jiu (Johnny Ng and Goh Guat Kian) were upon knowing that they finally had a son.
While Peter Ong had good vocal projection and singing quality, his pronunciation in Mandarin was not one that was most easily understood. This flaw in articulation made listening to him quite a chore. And that mainly contributed to a flat character that wished to boast an authority air.
What moved the audience the most was probably the brotherhood shared between Lao Jiu’s father, played by Johnny Ng and his master, played by Yeo Lyle. Both played important parts in the musical by sharing an unmistakable bond. They are key characters to look out for as they were the ones who would help shape Lao Jiu’s eventual destiny.
Compared to many other musicals I have watched, Lao Jiu: The Musical was one of a simple plot that was easily understood and hence accessible to the general crowd. However, underneath that veil was a luminous sheen of life philosophies and ruminations. In a society steeped in traditional values, how far would one go to pursue one’s dreams? Will Lao Jiu choose to bring glory to his family or would he choose to lead a life he calls his own?
The dilemma faced by Lao Jiu in the story is one that is not unfamiliar in cosmopolitan Singapore, especially among many young millennials. While the story may be traced back to the setting of the early 90’s, some things still do not seem to change with time. Many questions were left open for the audiences to ponder on while tugging at your heartstrings at the same time. So get your hankies ready.
Lao Jiu: The Musical is now playing at Drama Centre Theatre till 23 April. Tickets can be purchased at Sistic.
Photographs courtesy of The Theatre Practice.