Date: August 8, 2014
Location: Kwai Tsing Theatre, Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong Children’s Musical Theatre
Millennium Youth Orchestra
The musical is based on the comics and the life of the late Mr. Wong Sze Ma (王司馬), the Charles Schulz of Hong Kong’s world of illustration. Wong’s comics often depict the real life events of himself and his family. The musical, penned by playwright and lyricist Armando Lai (韋然), was borne out of an exchange between Lai and Wong’s siblings during a Macau exhibition of Wong’s works in 2013. Soon after the exhibition, producer and art educator Justine Woo (胡寶秀), co-founder of the Hong Kong Children’s Musical Theatre, contacted Lai and told him that they should, together with composer Frankie Ho, work on a piece based on Wong’s works. One thing led to the other, and six months later the script and score were completed.
A bulk of the musical alludes to the story of Niuzai (牛仔) and his family — they are characters in Wong’s eponymous four-panel comic strip published in Hong Kong in the 70s and early 80s. During that period, Hong Kong was recovering nicely from a past decade of natural disasters and political turmoil. Economically, the British colony was reinventing itself from an aging manufacturing base to a vibrant financial center. Optimism ran high, and citizens hoisted highly and held dear a can-do spirit. A lot of those sentiments is reflected in Lai’s lyrics:
“來給你繪幅漫畫 / 齊步行到未來 / 人生裡的歡樂與喜 / 會交替恨與淚 / 從不怕追蹤夢想 / 如未來有未來 / 給昨天的孩子 / 給今天的孩子 / 給明天的孩子”
“Let me draw you a comic / together we walk to the future / Life is full of happiness and joy / but also with scorn and tears / Fear not to reach for your dreams / If future has a future / let that be given to yesterday’s child / to today’s child / to tomorrow’s child” (Niuzai’s dad, to Niuzai)
Niuzai and his family, which are cartoon reflections of Wong’s son and his own family, represent a typical family of that era: guardedly confident of a promising future and happy to be living in the moment. Armando Lai’s lyrics provide a nice microcosm of that spirit of the yesteryear, and present a good contrast between then and now, where that sentiment was long lost under a thick cloud of social vitriol and political pessimism. Dramatically, Lai weaves two stories, one about Niuzai’s family in the comic strip and another about Wong’s family, together. Both stories have their tender moments of parent-child relationship, oozing plenty of parental love and a spring of youth. But in the latter, some moments, whether they be about manhood bonding through binge drinking, or about death and loss, tend to breach the limits of how far a director can go in a family-friendly musical where plenty of pre-teen kids attend.
The more serious topic probably aims to please the parents in the audience who grew up likening themselves to Niuzai’s parents, but could be too heavy for kids. True, even Wong’s comics sometimes weave these disparate topics together, but Wong did it with grounded realism inside four panels rather than through the sort of emphatic, animated dramatization of musical theater. Furthermore, ending the evening with dark chromatic music and death in the musical coda left a strange taste in the mouths of an audience expecting something more upbeat in a family-oriented evening. Wong would probably never drag out a death over a few minutes of dark music in a gloomy stage, even if given a stage to do so. The resulting effort tried to appease both adolescence and grown-ups, but fell somewhat short. Nevertheless, it was noteworthy that Frankie Ho’s music was well-orchestrated and truthful to musical theater, while Jennifer Ho (何嘉盈) conducted the Millennium Youth Orchestra with great attentiveness and courtesy.