Theatre Review: Field of Dreams (Hong Kong Repertory Theatre)
Leon Ko and Chris Shum’s Field of Dreams is revived by Hong Kong Repertory Theatre for the third time in Hong Kong. This is the first time I saw this musical, book written and directed by Anthony Chan.
As expected by previous several Cantonese original musical pieces done in Hong Kong with a large company, Field of Dreams is a show with a creative team and cast trying so hard to be brilliant over a bland structure of a musical that is premature.
The premise of the musical, I would say, is The Beautiful Game mixed Billy Elliot, but with a frame similar to Les Miserablés. In 1936 Hong Kong, a common youth named Zheng Kai-man, talented in playing football, is selected to be part of the football team in competing at the Olympic Games in Berlin. Before the team gets to Berlin, they have to get funding for the trip, and thus they goes on a tour within the Southeast Asia, but under the shadows of World War II, the team meets its challenges.
Here is the thing, Field of Dreams can be a fairly good musical if the book is following a tight premises as such as what I have written. However, Mr Chan’s book really derails from the main plot with a lot of other scenes which are trying to illustrate the historical background of the period, heated emotions of the citizens under the shadows of war, as well as the other relationships around Zheng.
There are too many storylines to cover within the 3-hour running show, which unfortunately makes me feel detached to most of the characters as these storylines are all half-baked.
You might say, ‘Les Miserablés also has a lot of storylines and characters, and it works.’ First of all, I do think Les Miserablés is not a brilliantly structured musical, but it is still a well-structured musical. In the first act, Jean Valjean is highly coloured as a character through his encounters with Javert as well as Fantine.
The audience are still centric to the main character most of the time even though there is a long sequence to illustrate Fantine’s tragic experience. We are emotionally invested to the relationships between these characters, and through their singing, we can get into their struggles, which at the end, reflects back to Valjean’s struggle as the protagonist.
Fields of Dreams, just like most of the Hong Kong original musicals which are trying to imitate the vibe of Les Miserablés, lacks this pinnacle recipe. We rarely can hear Zheng’s internal voice, his personal struggles as a talented footballer looking down by the privilege. Instead, we lost focus from the main plot by exploring Zheng’s sister’s romantic relationship with Ohno Kenichi, a Japanese pretend to be a Chinese.
The purpose of this whole subplot is just to make a point in Act 2 that even though Japan is attacking China and Hong Kong, love conquers all, as well as to try and illustrate Zheng’s dilemma on his sister as a ‘traitor’ to her country by falling in love to a Japanese.
Even though it is as cliché as it is, this can still work if I can see more on Zheng’s relationship with his sister, maybe a duet for them to illustrate that in Act 1, but this never comes up. The book is highly relying on Zheng’s relationships with other characters in order for the audience to emote for him in Act 2, as most of these relationships are falling apart when he is nearer to the goal of going to the Olympics.
Yet, same as Zheng’s sister’s line, all of these relationships are half-developed to be strong enough to do so, especially his relationship with Lin Ja-zhen, the privilege youth who looks down at Zheng in the beginning but slowly becomes friend with him. This is supposed to be the main plot, but now barely structured as a strong duo, making me rooting for this relationship less and less as the story progresses.
The gaps that can develop Zheng’s character is now filled up with borderline propaganda-ish numbers which really derails from the story. The result is, none of the characters have really high stakes to drive their motivations. None of these relationships feels urgent.
With such a story structure and a musical plot that is like a loosen rope, the creative team and the cast is trying very hard to fulfil a standard, but unfortunately, it still shows the shortcomings of the book. It is a waste of Mr Ko and Mr Shum’s talents as a composer and a lyricist. Most of the songs are pretty similar in genre that, with a lack of various purposes to sing, the songs and the score just becomes less exciting for an epic piece, even with some repetitive motifs in the music and word choices in the lyrics.
The songs are far less memorable than their previous works, and at some point, even feels like a parody of their Good Person of Szechwan. There are still a few catchy songs though, for example the main theme ‘Go Header!’, as well as ‘The Tour’.
Other artists are just underused. Yang Yuntao’s choreography can be much more spectacular, but now they are barely displayed within a number as a whole. The cast is trying to make their characters believable, but most of them are simply caricatures of stereotypes, and you can hear that through their delivering style of their lines.
There are two exceptional actors who are actually up to par though. Wang Wei as Lin, supposedly the antagonist of the story, gives a solid and honest reading of the character that makes Lin a far more lovable character than Zheng, and the severely underused Chris Sun who plays Lee Wai Tong, the coach of the football team, basically upstaged the whole company.
Mr Sun’s lucid energy as the authoritative yet kind mentor commands the stage with his charming presence, and his solo in Act 2 is probably the most heartfelt performance I have ever seen in Hong Kong musical theatre productions for years with a unique voice. It is a pity that Field of Dreams is not developed more around Mr Sun’s character instead.
After all, Field of Dreams is Merrily We Roll Along all over again. It is a waste of talents based on a half-developed book with a rush art design. However, unlike the Sondheim musical, Field of Dreams is not going to be the ‘best worst thing that could have ever happened’ if it is not going to be radically revised.
Field of Dreams at Grand Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre
Performed in Cantonese, with Chinese and English Surtitles
Through 15th January 2017