An innovative Vietnamese musical

(No.2, Vol.7,Apr-May 2017 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

It is the first show in Vietnam to step out of line with following traditional Vietnamese formats and yet it retains its Vietnamese essence whilst absorbing international elements. First shown in October of last year to both critical and popular acclaim, the musical ‘Giang Huong’ returned to the stage at the Saigon Opera House for three nights in March, 2017. With elements familiar to the average Westerner and indeed billed as the first Vietnamese show based on Broadway or London West End lines, I was lucky enough to be invited along.
The story concerns a bored fairy who strays into the underworld and starts a love affair with a mortal-village mandarin who quits his job to try to find her again. This is very familiar theme to the westerner dating back to Greek mythology. Shakespeare, of course, made remarkable comedy out of it in ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’. Here, it is the weakest part of the entertainment with a convoluted plot and constant bemoaning from the lovers. It is only enlivened by an interesting scene in which the mandarin is Rip Van Winkle-like projected into modern day Vietnam and meets some young children who only know him only as legend. There is also a subplot, equally universal, of the young woman having to choose between a husband chosen for her who is rich and powerful but nasty and the man whom she really loves and who adores her.
Another interesting aspect of this musical is the sisterly solidarity among the fairies in aiding Giang Huong's search for a solution to her seemingly impossible love. This gives rise to one of the best songs consummately sung by Tuong Phung Tran Nguyen and entitled 'Seven Shades of the Rainbow.' After many trials and tribulations, the story reaches a sensational climax concluding with a happy outcome for the couple through, without giving too much of the game away to you, the unselfish sacrifice of a sister fairy.
It is only my view if I did not like the story of course or the treatment of the themes. Luckily, the story is not what makes a musical great and everything else was absolutely fabulous. They have selected the very best singers both male and female. They are a delight to listen to. The sixteen songs too are very melodic. I imagine they are original although one was familiar to me as the song you always hear at Tet time. There are two screens at each side of the stage that give running English translation. I was seated at the back and with normal sight I could read this easily. The lyrics may give insight into the current taste in poetic lines in Vietnam. They would be over-sentimental for most westerners. For example we have ‘In my memory your eyes are two wells of moonlight’ and ‘My love is like a warm spring breeze. The sun is gently kissing you. And sending a flame into your eyes.’ As for the tunes most are recognisably Vietnamese but some include Latin, Jazz and even K-Pop influences.
They have got everything else exactly right. As we are used to seeing in purely cultural shows, the costumes are gorgeous and traditional. The lighting is great and used to enhance the poetic quality of the dialogue and lyrics. The choreography is brilliant. In particular the piece in which the fairy sisters dance and float around like shining butterflies will remain etched on my memory forever. The sets, whilst fairly simple, paint picturesque settings for the scenes.
To be sure, the Vietnamese certainly do know how to put on a jolly good show. I really hope they will stage this one a lot more in the future. This show is both innovative and hopefully seminal and I hope it will spark of a new Vietnamese tradition. I look forward to seeing musicals that centre around contemporary themes and the concerns and challenges facing modern Vietnamese society. The performance I saw had an audience ninety-five per cent of locals. Modern Vietnamese theatre is of such high quality that it deserves to be enjoyed by the wider world. I hope this article does its little bit to attract this attention. The bottom line is that this is a colourful and enjoyable spectacle. It is well worth your time and is very good value for money at less than ten dollars equivalent for the cheapest ticket.

By Pip de Rouvray
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