Lao Jiu would be surprised to find out that things have changed
In Lao Jiu: The Musical, a Singaporean family's youngest child (and only son) is offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity take the prestigious War Horse scholarship exam. It's a dream come true for everyone except him-because he really, really just wants to play with traditional Chinese puppets.
It's Lao Jiu's personal Matrix moment. Should he choose his family (and the possibilities of a better life for them) over himself? Does he conform to society or embrace individualism? Will it be education over art? Red pill or blue pill?
First staged 22 years ago (and now given its second musical makeover by The Theatre Practice as part of the ongoing Kuo Pao Kun Festival), this popular play by the late theatre doyen touched many as it revealed the conflicting values and priorities of Singapore society in the '90s and the challenges an artist faced back then.
But while it will continue to be held dear (and an important part of the canon), what happens when the same endearing story (director Kuo Jian Hong remains faithful to it, albeit with a new cast and new catchy songs from composer tag-team Xiao Han and Eric Ng) is staged in today's context?
Because two decades - or even a few years if you're going by the 2005 musical - makes a lot of difference. You've now got arts festivals left and right, a number of schools devoted to the arts, a government pumping money into the arts like there's no tomorrow, a Biennale, a firmly entrenched Esplanade. Lao Jiu would have had a proper culture shock.
It poses a conundrum particularly when Lao Jiu: The Musical derives its power from the simplicity and beauty of a world painted black and white. A world of "either/or" pressuring its main protagonist into making a painful choice.
How does an audience member buy into this when there is proof today that perhaps one doesn't necessarily have to make that painful choice. That yes, you can pursue art as a career. That education and art need not be separate. (Likewise, the work's idea of art as something pure doesn't completely sit well in a place where you've got "creative industries").
It's also interesting to note that the musical itself embodies this type of freedom. In the story, Lao Jiu's beloved puppet master talks about the impending death of traditional Chinese puppetry. But we later see a triumphant showcase of wonderful puppets of all shapes and sizes used and performed, courtesy of Paper Monkey Theatre. Even the two young main actors, who deliver commendable performances, typify the artist that Lao Jiu aspires to be - main dude Sugie, a finalist in Channel U's Project SuperStar, and his love interest Inch Chua, an singer-songwriter who's forging ahead in the indie music scene.
For all its earnestness and heart, does Lao Jiu: The Musical show its age? In a way, yes. But perhaps that could be a good thing in that it reveals that progress has been made. That a work that talks passionately about the need to fight for the freedom to create art can now stand as a reminder of a not-so-distant and a more uncertain past.
Lao Jiu: The Musical runs until July 29, 8pm (2.30pm weekend matinees), Drama Centre Theatre. Tickets at S$35 to S$66 from Sistic. In Mandarin with English surtitles.
By Mayo Martin
16 July 2012
In Lao Jiu: The Musical, Sugie and Inch Chua face a dilemma in chasing their dreams. In real life, they actually do. PHOTO COURTESY THE THEATRE PRACTICE