Higher Calling

Riding high on the commercial success of their last production Siddharta, the producers of Above Full Moon had billed this new production as a show that would take the local musical theatre scene to a ‘newer level’. In my view, it succeeded in that respect, as it showed that with the right funding, and determination, Malaysians could also put on an extravaganza.

That said, Above Full Moon suffers from the over ambitiousness of its creators on many levels. I have always felt that the creators of a theatre piece (i.e songwriter, lyricist, playwright) should never direct their own works let alone produce them. With the exception of perhaps Robert LePage, few have the skill or the magic to create and infuse life into a book (script) which will engage, resonate and even delight theatre-goers.

Director-Producer-Scriptwriter-Lyricist Ho Lin Huay’s book was in dire need of editing. An independent producer and director would have dropped many scenes, such as the opening scene in Act Two and Tomoko and Yu Shi’s duet, which did not add to the story or were extremely predictable. The lyrics vacillated from poignant to bland and predictable.

But the most serious flaw is to be found in the telling of the story. Naturally, telling the story of a person not well known outside the devout Buddhist circle was a big challenge. The show had to work that much harder for the general audience to connect with the protagonist. Musical Onstage Productions decided to solve this problem with the programme book, which provided a list of the milestones during the life of Lee Shu Tong, together with a blow by blow account of each scene. All presented in a very matter of fact tone.

In trying to tell his whole life story in such a short time, however, Ho’s homage to a great man becomes a shallow interpretation.

My research of Lee Shu Tong showed him to be one of the pioneers in China for modern music, opera and arts education. He was extremely talented and excelled in calligraphy, painting, seal cutting, opera, poetry and religion. As Master Hong Yi, one of China’s first laymonks, his Buddhist writings continues to inspire and teach million of devotees and followers, of which his most famous is The Book of Percepts. During his time as an arts lecturer, he taught, inspired and sponsored Feng Zi Kai, one of China’s great contemporary artist and caricaturist, who later became known as China’s father of cartoons. (I was to discover after the show that it is this character who opens and narrates the show – the story is told through his eyes in a series of flashbacks.)

As it is, much of the staging, reeling off his achievements in rapid succession, appear as cold as the programme book. It leaves out the deeper human elements that were the force behind Lee Shu Tong’s artistic vision and self-actualisation.

What lingers is the image of a self-absorbed man. After the death of his beloved mother, he abandons his first wife and newborn child amidst the backdrop of the Boxer Rebellion, to seek a higher art form in Japan. He then falls in love with Tomoko, the grand daughter of his Japanese landlady, who follows him back to China. In China he becomes a lecturer of music and the arts, inspires his students, sponsors two of the brightest, reads an article about Buddhism, and decides to forsake all, even Tomoko, for a higher calling. So Buddhism replaces art and history repeats itself.

Even the impressive vocal talent of the two leads, Yang Wei Han and Chew Paul Way, were not enough to elevate the show from its shallow depths. Throughout the show, there are scant opportunities to emotionally connect with the characters with perhaps the exception of Tomoko’s last scene. Here, Chew shines in her ability to portray her anguish at being abandoned and forced to return to Tokyo.

The lack of strong and perhaps experienced direction was also very much evident in the staging of the show. Director Ho’s lack of understanding of temporal and spatial elements resulted in some very bad blocking: for example, the scene where the pregnant Yu Shi leaves the stage, goes through labour and give birth all in one song with hardly a change in lighting or scenery to denote the passing of time.

The technical staging was just as problematic. The clever design of the set in the form of double faceted panels and beautiful set trucks were often negated by the numerous set changes, which effectively destroyed the flow of the show completely. Added to that was some very sloppy set executions and effects by way of crumpled scenery that needed serious stretching; hung banners which had bits patched up and one very loud snow shaker machine which only snowed on one side of the stage.

The strongest part of the show is perhaps its music. Given the limitations of the book, Imee Ooi managed to compose a string of good songs. There were some crowd pleasers like Tomoko’s and Yu Shi’s duet (which didn’t make it any less predictable) and the clever adaptation of a Buddhist chant at the end of the show. However, I feel much work still needs to be done musically to improve many of the other songs, especially those sung by the lead Lee Shu Tong, which did little to resonate with me. I also felt that the arrangement proved a bit too safe for my liking in a supposed tale about vision, dynamism, courage, love and turmoil.

In the end, Above Full Moon proved once again, without a doubt that Malaysia did indeed Boleh. It had everything needed to make a show successful; the nice big sets, big cast, great voices, nice music, great costumes, all staged within a great big indoor stadium. But in true Bolehland fashion, it got so caught up in the doing, it forgot to stop and reflect on the whys and wherefors and the little details that may have made it great. In the excitement and enthusiasm of doing the show, both Ho and Ooi tried to do too much, and promptly lost sight of the visionary that started the journey. That to me is the biggest travesty of all.

First Published: 27.07.2004 on Kakiseni

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