Touted as "a tortured masterpiece" by the producer and with the story adapted from Puccini's classically heartbreaking opera of love and betrayal, Madame Butterfly, the bilingual musical Cho Cho graced Beijing in a world-premiere run January 17 to 20.
Going into the show with reverence for the saga's history, I presumed the story line would be too tragic to follow. Cho Cho, a fresh remake of the 1998 musical Cho Cho San - set in Japan - by Australian playwright Daniel Keene, takes place in 1930s Shanghai and captivates audiences with its soulful music set to tunes with both Chinese and English lyrics. However, the story ends in an abrupt way that fails to convince audiences of the love between a teenage Shanghaiese girl and an American naval officer.
Produced by the National Theatre of China in Xicheng district along with Arts Centre Melbourne and Australia's PlayKing Productions, the musical tells the story of 15-year-old Cho Cho, played by Chinese pop singer Wang Zheng, who is sold by her aunt to an American naval officer. Marrying for convenience, Pinkerton, played by Australian Scott Irwin, leaves China shortly after the nuptials and returns three years later upon learning the girl he hardly knows has born him a son. Cho Cho's hopes of reuniting with Pinkerton are smashed when he tells her he has come only to collect the boy. Cho Cho reacts with violent desperation, creating a horrifically tragic scene for Pinkerton to see. On this, the most depressing note of the musical, the lights come up, and the show is over.
Funny scenes are also woven into the tragedy, as when the greedy aunt tries hard to make a fortune from selling her niece, but they are few.
The music is emotionally robust thanks to the work of Chinese musician Cheng Jin. Wang gives a moving vocal performance, perfectly tuning in viewers to the personal emotions of her pitiable character. Irwin portrays the American with convincing arrogance.
The leading characters are largely caricature, though. The connection between Pinkerton and Cho Cho is missing, and it's no wonder Pinkerton leaves her. (You can't expect too much from one-night love.) The ending comes off as prosaic, with the cruel American dumping the naive girl.
The show is set to tour international festivals in Austria, the UK and South Korea later this year. Despite the stereotyping, the music just might be able to win audie.
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