No Wind in These Sails
The Admiral's Odyssey was a musical (supposedly) inspired by the seven epic voyages of the 15th century Chinese adventurer, the eunuch admiral Cheng Ho.
Here's the plot in a nutshell: a young boy finds Cheng Ho's footprint in stone on a beach. By some strange magic Cheng Ho suddenly appears to him and tells him his life story in hope the boy will learn some lessons. The boy grows up and decides to go on his own adventure, leaving behind his sweetheart, his bitter elder brother and his poor old mum. Things don't work out in the big, bad world so he comes home, but alas it's too late - mum's dead, and his ex has married his brother. He finally realises that what he was searching for all along was at home.
With a plot like that, how could ACTION Theatre not be convinced they had a winner? Set it to music and squeeze in a few nifty dance moves, and you have the tinder in the fireworks for an NDP parade. Cast Tay Ping Hui in the lead, and you have a full-blown, 20-episode Channel 8 drama series. Unfortunately I must raise my dissenting hand and voice the many, many problems I had with this performance.
Top of my list - what did any of this have to do with Cheng Ho? Yes, there were some references to Cheng Ho's voyages, but the links with the main plot were as thin as Paris Hilton's waist. I think it speaks volumes that more was revealed of Cheng Ho's life through the musical's programme than through the play itself. History teachers should be warned: do not be misled by the blurbs and ads that seem to promise much more.
And where was this play set? The young boy was apparently living in "present" time, because there were plenty of references to the fact that what happened to Cheng Ho happened 600 years ago (in case anyone forgot that this was all part of the admiral's 600th anniversary celebrations). But there also seemed to be a whole kampong feel to the first few scenes. Was this Singapore in the 60s? Could it be a village in China? It's anyone's guess.
Costumes were generally lavish but didn't help in anchoring the play. The main cast was dressed in summery shades of brown that had a whole colonial British India feel. Question: Christopher's mother is a dressmaker who apparently weaves fascinating garments, but despite the many elaborate costumes, we never actually see her famous embroideries. Why? Why do some parts call for us to exercise our imagination, whereas other parts seem in-your-face? Like the boy's name. Christopher Cheng. Part Christopher Columbus, part Cheng Ho. Greatest Western explorer meets greatest Eastern explorer. It's okay if you're naming dishes on a fusion cuisine menu, but it's a bit tacky here.
Another question: What was the opening dance sequence in the second half about? The second half begins with a feisty Boom Boom Room-style dance number by the chorus, who are all dolled up as stewardesses in tiny skirts (including the male members in drag). It was entertaining, yes, but also a little risqué for a play packed with wholesome family values - and it was completely detachable from the rest of the plot.
The music was okay. Ken Low's melodies are pleasant tunes with a Barry
Manilow feel. But in a good musical, the songs contribute to the story
and add drama. A character breaks into song not because she has to,
but because the words have led her to it, and there is no other way
out of a moment than through song. I didn't feel that way about any
of the songs here.
But this alone was not enough to warrant the round of self-congratulation at the end of the show, with producer Ekachai Uekrongthram spending ten minutes thanking his entire cast and crew as if this was his first school play.
Then again, who am I to criticise? ACTION Theatre has taken its Siamese twins round the world. They don't care about the half-baked opinion of someone from The Inkpot. It's how the audience reacts that matters. And some people clearly enjoyed the show. Several in front of me felt moved enough to give a standing ovation. Or perhaps they felt restless and needed to get off their bums while they clapped. I don't know for sure.
What I do know is that there are theatre groups out there doing very good things that no one pays any attention to. Stellar performances that barely draw a whisper of a crowd. And then there are shows like this that get published in Singapore Tourism Board brochures.
It makes me angry. Cheng Ho's life is a wonderful story, told straight up, without any sappy songs or dancing queens. ACTION Theatre felt otherwise. I raise my dissenting hand in protest.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /