Although I don't claim to be an expert on reviewing musicals, and especially not Chinese musicals, I decided to review the musical version of Jimi's "Turn Left, Turn Right" (or "Love, Regret" as they call it) as a way of memorialising the experience, much like how I write reviews for my favourite albums or movies. As I had never seen a Chinese musical before, I didn't know what to expect, but was in extreme anticipation mode about seeing the talented performers Waa Wei, Wang Dawen and Joanna Wang performing and interacting on stage together. Furthermore, it seems that the producer and composer for many of the songs within the musical was none other than George Chen, renowned producer and cult favourite within the Taiwanese music industry for his elegantly crafted works. What could go wrong?
The storyline of the musical differed a little from Jimi's original story, adding characters and making it so that Mr. Regret and Ms. Leaving (Wang Dawen and Waa Wei respectively) were brought together both in real life, and simultaneously by the will of a shoddy yet likeable bunch of muso misfits including a film director, a rock singer, and a writer (played by Cui Tai Hao, Yang Deng Jun and Yao Jen Chang) who do nothing but sit in Jimmy's Cafe all day and mooch off its friendly and motherly owner (Liang Xiao Heng) and assistant Ms. Weather (Datian). Joanna wang comes into the picture as the woman who is looking for her cat, who drifts in and out of the picture from time to time. Also present in the musical are a cat who is actually a human (played by Pan Zhiyuan) and a bird (played by Li Man) who ironically are a couple and often narrate the storyline or interject with their philosophical thoughts on life and love. Through several missed opportunities, Mr. Regret and Ms. Leaving repeatedly try to find each other but find their paths to be parallel each time until finally they decide to let go of each other, bringing them back together.
With any medium of the arts, be it movies, music or musicals, one of the main criteria I go off is the degree of immersion the work of art brings to me. In other words, a work of art (or musical in this case) to me is one that embraces me into their world and allows me to transcend time and space to enter a dimension of timelessness, where all that matters is the story in front of me. In other words, the overall criteria for me is whether I was fully engaged with the storyline of the musical.
And my answer to that question is both yes and no. Dawen, Waa and Joanna have been artists that I've admired for a long time, and it would be extremely easy for me to fall into the trap of viewing them not as their characters, but as their real-life selves. However, apart from the initial exhilaration of seeing them all on stage together, all preconceptions of what I knew about their real lives, their music, their ideas faded away, allowing me to entirely engage with these characters they had breathed life into. Dawen's musical theatre background certainly did not let him down as he convincingly played the friendly, yet lonely and downtrodden violinist Mr. Regret; stringing my heart along with every note he sang and every word he said. The versatile Waa, who played Miss Leaving was equally convincing in her role as the quiet translator who lived in a world of her own; a girl with unique perspectives and a fervent, yet subtle desire to meet someone who could truly understand her innermost thoughts and feelings. Both played their characters so well that to me it was just as if I was in their heads, and could completely relate to what they were feeling; their shy giddiness upon first meeting, their bittersweet yearning to see each other again, and their unspeakable happiness upon finally meeting again. Wei and Wang had an undeniable stage chemistry that I felt came not from their own personalities, but instead from the pair's intense dedication to their roles. In those three hours, as I listened to Wang and Wei's vocals fuse in sweet harmony, I did not doubt even once that Mr Regret and Miss Leaving were indeed soulmates.
Joanna also played her part as C, or the crazy cat lady (as I like to call it) superbly, but unlike with Dawen and Waa who changed themselves to fit the role, it seems that the role fit Joanna's personality perfectly. Although a side character who intermittently appears throughout the musical without rhyme or reason for the most part (I later found that she was supposed to be a woman who had lost her memory, and was instead looking for her lover), Joanna played her role so effortlessly that no one would even think to ask about the importance of her presence, slipping herself so seamlessly in and out of scenes with little fuss or overdramaticism, yet commanding all the attention in the room each time she opened her mouth. I later found out after reading up on the musical, that the cat she was looking for was instead not a cat, but instead a lost lover, symbolising a type of love that trails aimlessly with no rhyme or reason as opposed to Mr. Regret and Ms. Leaving's 'Left-Right' love story.
Vocal-wise, Waa, Dawen and Joanna's vocals were in tip-top condition, nailing all the harmonies and really singing their way into my heart. However, I felt there was a real difference in quality of the vocals of the chorus group, whose voices did not mesh in unison, and kind of detracted from the 'wow' factor of the musical.
The other cast members were enthusiastic in their reprisal of their roles; with special commendation especially going to Jimmy Cafe's lady boss S played by Liang Xiao Heng and her lovelorn shop assistant Ms. Weather played by Datian. S was the quintessential 'Lao Ban Niang'; humorous, tough on the outside but with a kind heart and a ear open to anyone who might need it. Datian had a strong set of vocals and was for me an integral character which linked all the various stories into a more cohesive whole, by skilfully being the person to befriend Waa's character, acting the part of the lovelorn fool pining for a lover in New York, while encouraging and partaking in the coffeeshop banter with the other characters.
The whimsical props, costumes and the simple yet beautiful songs composed by George Chen, and even Sodagreen's Wu Tsing Feng in part were for the most part a pleasure to listen to, and truly buoyed the musical along in terms of reading an eclectic, vintage yet whimsical theme and atmosphere. A nice of mix musical theatre stuff, with a little rock and bossa nova thrown in for good measure had my ears perking up at every listen. My favourites were the ones written by Qing Feng, especially "But dreams will only go farther" and "Curious City". Although I have to say I was a little disappointed in the arrangement and production quality as I had hoped for something a little more well executed and extravagant, it was still pretty good and did a solid job of conveying what the character's lines couldn't.
However, there were also parts of the musical which to me were less immersive, and were mainly the parts featuring the trio of misfit musos, played by Yang Deng Jun, Cui Tai Hao and Yao Jen Chang. Although they tried their best, cracking jokes and providing the audience with comic relief over their jolly antics, their performances to me were of mediocre quality, and failed in truly immersing me in their part of the storyline. I found the three of them to be lacking in personality; for example, the rocker played by Yao Jen Chang had a nice voice, but he was in no way a rocker. He didn't have the voice for it, and he most certainly didn't have the attitude for it. So although these three characters were the main link joining the inception-like happenings between Mr Regret and Miss Leaving's real-life love story and their scripted one, their lacklustre performance really blurred the lines for me, leaving me to pick up the pieces of the puzzle for myself.
Furthermore, another issue I had with the musical was that it was too focused on character development and ignored the importance of clarity in the storyline. There were inherent complexities that made storytelling more difficult, due to the extra layers that were added to the plot involving side stories between Joanna's cat lady C. and the Rocker Y., Ms Weather pining for a lover in the States while amateur director K. fawned over her, the random love story between a cat who is actually a man and a bird (there is ABSOLUTELY no way I would have known this without further research into the characters), and the alternate reality concept of Mr Regret and Miss Leaving's story being retold in reality as the artistic trio reviewed their scripted version of it. Although I was able to appreciate each of these little stories on their own, I nevertheless found it hard to put all these stories together in a cohesive whole, other than trying to put together scraps and bits of pithy lines uttered by the characters to link all these stories of love and loss together. Personally, I would have liked for the story to be more simple and streamlined, as I feel although the musical is strong in terms of its free-flowing artistic direction, it lacks in clarity by trying to use whimsy as an excuse for all the loose ends within the musical.
All in all, I was nevertheless still able to appreciate the sweet story and enjoyed myself, even gaining a few pithy sayings about love and loss from watching the musical. I came out of it better than when I went in, so despite the downsides, "Turn Left, Turn Right" was a pleasure to watch and was a welcome escape from the mundane issues of daily life.
Photos taken from Mr Wing Theatre's Facebook Page.
Hasty pictures taken during the performance...
It's been my dream since I started getting to know more about Chinese music to be able to live in Taipei, and now I'm finally going to be able to! Starting from the 11th of February, I will be staying in Taipei for 139 days and hope to share parts of my experiences that may be helpful with readers everywhere! (Feb 2014)