1980’s Taiwanese movie Papa Can you Hear Me Sing was one of my favourite Chinese movies when I was in school. The musical movie, a rare treat in those days, was a hit for many reasons. The sob story made the audience cried, and the songs were on the charts for many weeks. This was a touching tale of how a kind-hearted mute man rescues a baby girl and raises her into a lovely 18-year old girl with good vocals. The man, Ya Shu, who collects glass bottles for income, scrimped and saved to provide for the girl, Ah Mei, in the village where they live. The girl is talent spotted and groomed for stardom, changes her identity and family history in the process. She is often away doing promotion and her absence is viewed as a betrayal to her father and friends back in the village.
I caught the repeat of this movie on cable a few times and still enjoyed it, thus was excited when I heard that it was being made into a musical by Toy Factory. It has all the ingredients to be successful – sob story and fabulous songs.
The truth was, I went away from the musical on Saturday night a disappointment. The two-hour show, without intermission, was lagging in many areas.
One reason people attend stage shows is for the visual impact. Think of wayangs – street operas from the our childhood – the stage was opulent, the costumes and makeup elaborate. Think also of the western musicals we enjoyed, the staging was often impressive. Even for simpler plays, there were some essence of staging to bring forth the story.
The stage for Glass Anatomy consisted of eight gigantic steel structures with some plastic frames moved by masked extras. They were moved about to show the village, the separation, the singing stage, and demolition of the village. A tricycle, a piano and dressing table made of acrylics complete the set. It did not help that the stage was set deep, which provided ample space for the movements but loses the intimacy with the audience (I was in row three.). The result was that the structures were a distraction, a hindrance which at times obscure the actors. In the movie, the house that Ya Shu and Ah Mei live were constructed of bottles. I had hope this would somehow be replicated but I guess not. The bare stage and poor props were the weakest link for the whole musical. Even as Ya Shu lays dying, he was on his tricycle and not a hospital bed, with medical personals running around, and a beeping sound indicating hospital. Personally, the importance of the tricycle has been overly exaggerated.
The familiar songs were rearranged to give it an update but I would have preferred the original arrangements. Some of the singing were strained. At one point, lead actress Ding Dang as Ah Mei was out of cue. But my biggest regret was that the director didn’t make use of the music to raise the emotion of the audience. When Ya Shu dies, Ah Mei was left wailing for a few awkward minutes. Dying scenes are great if one knows how to take advantage of it. Think Les Misérables, when Jean Valjean dies and all the ghosts come to take his hand, with music in the background, my tears just flowed. Here, I was squirming uncomfortably waiting for the wailing to end.
I don’t know if the story has changed or that I have matured. The manager changed Ah Mei’s name and family background in the name of fame, which is quite often seen in real life, so it’s naïve to see that as a betrayal to her upbringing and father, sort of like making a mountain out of a mole hill. The script was too quick to make the manager as a villain, way too simplistic.
What was new was that the orchestra was seated at the side, instead of below the stage, and the musicians saunter onto stage at some points to mingle with the actors.
Julius Foo, Della Ding Dang and the cast deserve credit for their performances as Ya Shu and Ah Mei respectively. Unfortunately, they couldn’t save the show.