Very few musicals combine a legendary Far East figure, epic grandeur, resplendent costumes, culturally attuned choreography, and sets that are evocative of the time, place & culture in history and the glorious Tibetan mountains. The Chinese title’s font design on the poster is a nod to Tibetan scripture. The Chinese title literally means “the light of the snow land”. Tonight (Friday)’s performance counts the Sultanah of Johore as Guest of Honour.
Princess Wen Cheng was a legendary figure in Sino-Tibetan history. Distant niece of the Tang Dynasty Emperor, Tai Zong, she was married off to the Tibetan king Songtsan Gampo. Those were the days when women were moved around like pawns in the grander scheme of geopolitics, as Wen Cheng’s father lamented in one of the songs. Wen Cheng left all that is familiar to her, braved harsh weathers and travelled 1000 miles for the Tobu kingdom. Wen Cheng was a Buddhist. Legend has it that she, and Songtsan Gampo’s other wife, Brikuti Devi, a Nepalese princess who was also a Buddhist, influenced Songtsan Gampo and introduced Buddhism to Tibet. Other related legacies include the origins of the Potala Palace, today a UNESCO world heritage site.
Perhaps some changes might make this musical a great production: as a start, the lyrics could be improved upon in that currently they don’t quite fit elegantly with the tune, and are sometimes awkwardly phrased. Secondly, the performance could be pushed to a whole new level if the musical was accompanied by a live band/orchestra. But as it is, the production has the rare distinction of being a mainstream successful musical that portrays Asian cultural history. The attention to cultural artistic details is impressive – from the Tibetan samsara knot symbols appearing in the Tibetan king’s court, to dances that pay homage to the Tibetan tradition. Apparently the production team had visited various key locations in China and Tibet, retracing Wen Cheng’s route. There are a few other dance sequences which bear no relevance to the plot, one of which is the highly anticipated “thousand hands guan yin”, but nonetheless enjoyable to watch as individual set pieces.
Wen Cheng asks the Tibetan minister who escorts her on the arduous journey what his homeland is like, to which he replied “It is paradise”. The ShangriLa-esque portrayals by the sets and multimedia projections is evocative of this paradise. Add to that are vivid scenes of treacherous mountain crossings, and soaring eagles (portrayed by dancers) amidst the snow capped mountains set to some magnificent soprano singing.
Princess Wen Cheng The Musical, an entirely Malaysian production that has already played to rave reviews in KL, Taipei, China including Xi’an, said to be Princess Wen Cheng’s birthplace. Performing at the Esplanade till Sunday 13 January 2013. Performed in Mandarin with English surtitles.