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“Ni jiu shi Dancing Queen”: the all-Chinese Mama Mia!

July 22, 2011

The post-curtain call rendition of "Dancing Queen" in the all-Chinese production of the West-End smash hit musical Mama Mia! It's the 14th non-English production of the show worldwide.

As soon as I found out about the all-Chinese Mama Mia! debuting at the Shanghai Grand Theater, I knew I had to go. I wouldn’t let anything get in the way: this was a historic event in musical theater history–Mama Mia! is the first western musical to be produced in Chinese– and damned if this theater geek wasn’t gonna be there!!! Also, after a year of being entirely starved of my favorite art form, both as an audience member and as a participant, I couldn’t resist the thought of an all-Chinese cast belting out ABBA’s classics in Mandarin while wearing silly costumes (see picture above).

I was just as eager to watch the audience as the action on stage. How would China receive a show like Mama Mia!? First of all, its success in the West was precipitated by the popularity of ABBA’s music ( for those of you who don’t know, the score is entirely made up of ABBA songs, lyrics unadulterated), but ABBA, so far as I know, has never been popular in China.

Second of all, the story and the characters are so very un-Chinese. The main characters are a girl, Sophie, who doesn’t know who her father is, and her mother, Donna, who also doesn’t know who the father is! Donna’s behavior is so very un-Chinese: sleeping around before marriage, with multiple men in the same few weeks, then having a child out of wedlock! How scandalous! The musical also has other un-Chinese moments, like an older woman having an affair with a young man (and flirting like crazy in public), and another older woman throwing herself at a man who doesn’t seem interested.

And third of all, China doesn’t have a musical theater culture. While there is traditional Peking Opera and other forms of theatrical performance in China’s history, there’s nothing like the Broadway/West-End musical to speak of.  Where would you find the actors to handle the material? And wouldn’t a lot of the humor be lost in translation? I had to find out!

With all my curiosity, I splurged for the tickets for me and Rick (about US$100 apiece for orchestra seats), armed myself with a video camera, and went to the show!

A Review of China’s Mama Mia!

I’ll keep this short, but the show all-in-all was fantastic! Much better than I expected!

The show was put up by the team behind the original West-End production, so in many aspects, the show was identical to its English counterpart: set, costumes, lighting design, and direction were all on par with the original musical – top notch professional stuff. No need to spend time elaborating on those aspects. Really I just want to talk about two things: the language, and the cast.

The language worked surprisingly well. According CNNgo, the translations were kept as close to the meanings of the original lyrics as possible, and the translators left iconic words in the songs: “Dancing Queen,” “Money, Money, Money,” and “Honey Honey” remained in English, while the rest of the song was in Chinese. All of ABBA’s songs sounded just as good in Chinese, and there was plenty of rhyming, so clearly these translators were pros.  It was really fun for me whenever I understood the Chinese lyrics, aided by my strong knowledge of the original lyrics.

They also left all the original character names unchanged. Some of these worked better than others. Donna and Sophie weren’t too awkward, but the names Sam Carmichael, Bill Anderson and Harry Bright (Sophie’s three potential fathers) were kind of hilarious when pronounced with a thick Chinese accent, and made me chuckle. (Also, those were the names of three Chinese men? Not very convincing!)

And the humor! They obviously altered a lot of the humor, and Rick and I certainly missed quite of few of the jokes that the audience loved. But on the whole, the humor worked really well, especially the physical humor. People even laughed at Donna’s scandalous predicament of not knowing her daughter’s father. It didn’t become tense or anything, as I worried it might because of the taboo, foreign behaviors of the characters.

The cast was also excellent on the whole, but the women really outshone the men. Tian Shui as Donna was INCREDIBLE, a seasoned stage actress and it showed. Her voice was absolutely gorgeous, everything she did seemed effortless,  and she was funny to boot. As good as any musical theater professional I’ve ever seen. Donna’s two best friends, played by two professional Chinese vocalists, were also excellent – perfectly cast, great singers and strong actresses. The actress portraying Sophie, Taiwanese newbie Zhang Fangyu, was also very strong, with a very pretty voice and a strong belt, but at times she was a bit pitchy. Still, overall, the women ROCKED, as they should because women own this show.

The men… well, they didn’t rock so much. As vocalists, the four lead males – Sophie’s three possible fathers and her fiancee Sky – were all lackluster. Their voices were all throaty and thin. A few times, I feared that the man who played Sam, who was miscast, wouldn’t hit the high notes in “Knowing Me, Knowing You.” And Sky was quite pitchy, I’ll leave it at that. But all the boys, to their credit, milked their laughs.

The ensemble was strong. Great energy all around, and they were all good dancers and held their harmonies. Granted, the dance in the show is not very difficult, but still, I was impressed with the highly professional performances from the ensemble, as the actors were mostly total newbies to the stage, fresh out of acting school or conservatory.

Overall, bravo bravo! The show deserved the standing ovation it got!

Dawning of a new era?

This could be the start of something beautiful. I was so pleasantly surprised when the entire audience got to its feet during the post-curtain call renditions of “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo.” When I saw Mama Mia! years ago in San Francisco, the same thing happened, but that’s because everyone in the audience loved ABBA and was singing along. In Shanghai, all these songs were new to the audience, but they still got up and danced and clapped! Marvelous! Everyone was clearly having a great time, and the audience was young on the whole (20s-40s).

I think musical theater has a bright future in China. I hope more Western musicals are translated into Chinese, but I hope even more that the Chinese start churning out their own original musicals. Peking Opera needs a successor. China is chock-full of fantastic material for historical musicals, and many of the popular TV shows and miniseries could easily become modern musicals like Mama Mia, full of relationship drama, situational comedy, and hijinks. Also, the Chinese love Shakespeare: let’s get some musical adaptations in the works, people! The modern Chinese Kiss Me Kate is begging to get made!

But the real reason I have so much hope for the musical is that musical theater has a wonderful capacity to be both entertaining and politically harmless. Much more so than in non-musical theater, musicals are very rarely politically subversive, or political at all  (I can only think of a handful, like Cabaret and Miss Saigon). I think Hu Jintao would approve of Hello Dolly! or My Fair Lady, don’t you? Hell, he might even give the Chinese Eliza Doolittle a standing ovation one day!

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