I am happy to report that I was impressed by Princess Wen Cheng. It’s no wonder that this production travelled to perform in Taipei, Beijing and Xi’an. It is good. By no means perfect, but practically on level with the average West End production.
In a nutshell, Princess Wen Cheng is the story of the Tang Princess Wen Cheng who was sent to marry the Tubo king.
The first thing I had to say to my mother at the intermission was: “This is a musical.” We’d seen Empress Wu earlier that afternoon, which I thought it was a good effort but severely flawed in terms of storytelling and didn’t seem like a true “musical”.
Princess Wen Cheng integrated songs and dance the way I’m accustomed to seeing in other musicals – to not only underscore emotions, but also to introduce locations/characters and as a real part of the narrative – i.e. the scene is mostly a song instead of just long spoken dialogue with a minute’s worth of singing.
This musical was entirely in Mandarin, with surtitles projected on screens on either side of the stage. You’d think that someone like me, with barely-there understanding of Mandarin, would find it harder to appreciate this one than Empress Wu, which was in both English and Mandarin. But it really wasn’t all that bad – I still found it enjoyable and watchable, though of course not nearly as enjoyable as English ones where I understand everything. They do need to get someone better to write their surtitles, though. There were a few odd, questionable lines and one big spelling error that made me want to laugh: in the song where the visiting convoy were discussing the Emperor’s questions and the answers supplied by their minister, one of the questions posed was “how to match 100 mares and 100 foes?” My first thought was, “What do mares and foes have to do with each other??” But a glance at the Mandarin surtitles that appear alongside the English surtitles showed the Mandarin words 小马 and I know enough to comprehend that as “small horse”. The lyrics that follow proved doubly that it should be “foals”, not “foes.” Hahahaha. Oh dear.
The music and choreography were good. I particularly liked the ensemble pieces because they were more lively. But here’s where I think Princess Wen Cheng falls a liiiittle bit short of being a top-rate musical – the main singers can act and sing, but they don’t seem to be dancers; and the ensemble can certainly dance but it seemed more like the singing was pre-recorded instead of being sung live. The main figures sing a lot but don’t dance at all, whereas the ensemble dance but don’t sing. It’s probably incredibly difficult to find people who can do it all – act, sing, and dance – in a population that isn’t very large, so I can understand and appreciate the choice made here to pick people who specialise in specific skills.
There were one too many slow solo pieces, maybe. I could have done with a couple more “active” songs instead. Or the slow solo songs perhaps could have been balanced out by combining them with ensemble dances, as they did with the mourning song for the Songsten Gampo. Granted, it is an overall sad story, but the lengthy slow and melancholic solos do feel a little too gloomy.
In terms of narrative, Princess Wen Cheng did well. There was focus on the titular character, and although she doesn’t do a great deal in the way that Elphaba does in Wicked, she’s more similar to Cosette in Les Miserables but is more active than Cosette. It’s not a character arc in the sense of her character growing or changing over the course of the story, but it’s a story of her coming to Tubo and her impact there. You meet her first as the Yan’er, niece of the Emperor, who then designates her the Princess Wen Cheng – a method of making her an acceptable wife for the Tubo king, as he’s unwilling to make any of his own daughters travel to the “barbaric” Tubo. At first reluctant to go, the new princess agrees to it after being convinced by a vision of Kuanyin. (The musical is very much full of Buddhist themes.) She goes to Tubo and brings the Tang culture and scientific advances there, and becomes beloved by the king and the people. I can’t help contrasting it with Empress Wu, which I watched earlier in the day. That one had problems demonstrating the personality of the titular character, this one had none at all.
Princess Wen Cheng‘s production design was top-notch. Costumes were beautiful and appropriate to the people, place(s) and time. They used the space well, the set design was a joy to my eyes – especially the Chinese emperor’s throne room and the waterfall sets – and the lighting was excellent. I’m going to just go off on a happy ramble here: The emperor’s throne room was actually fairly simple, but rendered impressive by the presence of the pillars with golden dragons carved on them. Those pillars really made the look because besides the throne, I think the pillars are the icons of the Chinese throne room, so including them adds grandeur and believability. The waterfall scene was a lovely combination of a constructed set with projected background and flowing dry ice. Gorgeous. As for lighting, nowhere was the lighting more brilliantly executed than in the scene where Wen Cheng leaves for Tubo. The lighting “draws you in”, as my mother said, and gives the impression of the procession moving off into the distance. (I also had not realised that Istana Budaya’s stage was so very deep…)
It delights me that this musical is a Malaysian production because it shows that with the right people, it is possible for the local arts scene to reach the West End level. It’s not that easy, but also not impossible. If I’m not mistaken, Princess Wen Cheng is playing at Istana Budaya for another week, and if you’re in KL, you should really go to see it.