I Love the Art, and Love is Irrational
The play Lao Jiu, written by the late Kuo Pao Kun, was first staged in 1990. This is the third staging of it as a musical by The Theatre Practice. Although the overall structure and message of the musical are largely faithful to Kuo’s play, the musical is ultimately weakened by two main things: a tendency to overstate, and the introduction of a romantic love trajectory.
Act One is generally the stronger of the two acts, with the more lighthearted scenes where Lao Jiu and his large, boisterous family are introduced, and where the story surrounding his birth is recounted in a humorous hospital scene.
By the time Act Two rolls around, however, the main conflicting perspectives of Lao Jiu versus his family/Father/Shi Fu/society have been repeated to the point of tedium. While Kuo’s play is heartwrenching and poignant in its ability to make astute observations of society through metaphor, when reworked into song lyrics for the musical, the ideas have unfortunately become repetitive and trite.
This makes Lao Jiu in the musical appear exactly as his father berates him – like a selfish brat, ungrateful to his family and only wanting to do as he pleases. However, as Lao Jiu’s final monologue (in the musical as in the play) shows, he is anything but ungrateful or frivolous – he is the victim of a larger society that defines success in narrow terms; he acknowledges his family’s love and concern; he gives thought to how he can sustain and revive a dying art form that he loves.
Inexplicably, a romantic love interest (Junior Horse) is introduced in the musical. Part of the confusion lies in her association with the War Horse Foundation. Unlike the rest of the cast whose costumes realistically conjure up the ‘70s setting, Senior Horse and Junior Horse appear in fantastical costumes. This makes sense given that they can be seen to represent a larger bureaucratic society. However, when Junior Horse is turned into a character with the obligatory story, but lacks backstory as a dramatis personae (rather than just an administrative minion), the romantic development between her and Lao Jiu is unconvincing. Better to focus on just one type of love.
The musical has its strengths – the ensemble as a whole is impressive, both vocally and choreographically. Amongst the relatively large ensemble, individual characters are discernible. I also applaud the increased use of Hokkien which makes the character of the Father more believable and emotionally coherent – his lullaby to his newborn son is an especially touching moment.
I hope that Lao Jiu’s developmental journey continues, as one of a handful of genuinely relevant and meaningful Singaporean musicals.