A Crane Without Bite

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“Paper Crane” charts the rise of a star and of love; and the fall of the same. Mixing languages exactly the way Malaysian life does, the musical exhibits authenticity, but...

I’ve always thought of musicals as the club sandwich of the performing arts world. Sure, a bacon sandwich tastes pretty good on its own, but throw in another layer of egg, cheese, tomatoes, and we’re really talking. Aficionados of the musty higher art forms may wax lyrical over single sliced opera, ballet and theatre, but deep down who can resist the greasy charms of the all-singing-dancing-acting high octane musical? The perfect trifecta of high camp and sheer entertainment.

“Paper Crane” from The Actors Studio has been running to rave reviews since the curtains lifted on July 27, 2012 at KLPac; August 25 marked the production’s premiere in Penang at the Penangpac. The plot revolves around a Chinese opera troupe and the battle between its established star Fui Koh and the young upstart Ah Kit, who is desperate to see his name up in lights. Of course the path to Ah Kit’s stardom doesn’t run smoothly, he antagonises Fui Koh constantly and bickers with his destitute, dumpling-thieving mother.

Apparently, Ah Kit blames poor old mum for driving his father to an early grave. I say “apparently” as this part of the dialogue was in Cantonese and beyond my pathetic dim sum vocabulary. See-sawing between English and Cantonese isn’t as contrived as it sounds, especially given the context of the musical. Ho Soon Yoon’s jovial, back-slappy Siu Ngau was excellent, I had no idea what he was talking about but his acting was spot-on. On reflection, the Chinese numbers stood out, but perhaps that’s because the reviewer didn’t understand the lyrics. The English songs were forgettable, not helped by the chorus’ unclear diction.

Returning to the unfolding drama... Ah Kit’s big break eventually comes when Fui Koh has a tantrum and leaves the stage mid-show only to accidentally bump into Ah Kit’s mother, she collapses on the floor and croaks. Rather than tend to his dying mother, the unfilial Ah Kit seizes the moment to make his big stage debut as the whistle sounds the end of a long first half. It’s all so tidily done; the old woman’s life snuffed out so quickly, but that’s what you get for being an alcoholic kleptomaniac.

When the second half resumes Ah Kit is now the big star of the show, adored by the opera troupe and new fans, and happily in love with the theatre owner’s daughter – Fei Mui. There’s always trouble in paradise though, and when Ah Kit eventually buys over the opera troupe, his ego gets the better of him and it all starts to go tits up. Audience figures decline, the troupe gets restless and Ah Kit neglects the lovely Fei Mui. When the opera house goes up in flames, Fei Mui leaves her man and a delusional Ah Kit continues to perform into his old age. The end.

What I’ve always enjoyed most about musicals is leaving the theatre with the songs playing merrily in my head; over time these lodge firmly, to be mentally retrieved and hummed at traffic lights, in lifts and in the bathroom. Seven weeks on from “Paper Crane”, my cranium is devoid of any musical memory of the show, barring the vague recollection of Lee Elaine’s powerful solos.

Away from the music, the acting and choreography were decent, and Colin Kirton put in a commanding performance as Fui Koh. Unfortunately perhaps, Kirton’s on-stage charisma and physical presence totally eclipsed the miniature Ah Kit, but then again, everyone loves a good baddie. In the end though, despite the sophisticated set design and costumes, “Paper Crane” just lacked much needed bite.



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