BWW Review: MR. SHI AND HIS LOVER Croons at the Intersection of Musical and Opera
MR. SHI AND HIS LOVER, a new take on an old love story, manipulates perception in a tale of perception manipulation. Through seven non-linear scenes, performed in Mandarin with Chinese and English surtitles, MR. SHI AND HIS LOVER integrates a mix of introspective arias and narrative songs. The themes and boundaries of love are explored in an exploration of music that is difficult to pin down. Is it an opera? Or is it more of a musical?
Inspired by true events, MR. SHI AND HIS LOVER tells the tale of a French diplomat, Bernard Boursicott (Derek Kwan), who falls in love with a Chinese opera singer, Shi Pei Pu (Jordan Cheng). After being accused of passing classified information to the Chinese, the lovers are arrested by the French government and charged with espionage. What shocked the world was the revelation during the proceedings that Shi was actually a man, and that for the duration of their twenty-year relationship, Boursicott (apparently) believed Shi to be a woman.
The piece appears simple, but its simplicity is a façade. The layered romance investigates Boursicott's relationship with Shi Pei Pu - both female and male - and Shi's obsessive need to perform for his lover. The title directs us to think of Shi as male - and we see Shi as male, with Cheng performing most of the piece in a suit. But the scenes gradually expose Boursicott's battle with his own conception of his lover. Is he blissfully unaware of the fact that the male Shi is performing the role of a woman? Or is he attracted to the soul inside, simply appeasing Shi's need to perform?
As the show begins, a chamber orchestra assembles, opening with an overture that overwhelms with rhythm. The East-inspired sound features a piano, various percussive instruments and the earthly pounding of a marimba. Composer and music director Njo Kong Kie and Yukie Lai deliver the show's contemplative score with music that flows between repetitive rhythmic percussion, the piano ringing with pentatonic chords, and gorgeous ballads filled with familiar, minimalist chords and arpeggios. If I were trying to pin down the show's genre, the structure of the music leans toward opera, but the sound of the music skates on the outskirts of musical theatre.
Kwan and Cheng are vocally terrific in the two-person drama - it is a treat to spend 75 minutes with their handsome voices. Kwan sings with a heartfelt classical sound, resonating through the Mandarin text - the soft-consonant nature of the language creates a beautiful, vowel-filled sound. Cheng, who trained in musical theatre, presents a sweet, balanced tenor with a pure falsetto that can easily be focused into a piercing belt. For such an intimate show, the quality of the voices are sincerely impressive.
The talented performers make MR. SHI AND HIS LOVER an attractive piece of theatre, but the exploration of a gay love story, framed by the intriguing and difficult to define score by Njo Kong Kie, makes for a unique, evocative experience.
MR. SHI AND HIS LOVER runs through December 17, 2017 at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace, 30 Bridgman Avenue, Toronto, ON.
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit tickets.tarragontheatre.com
MR. SHI AND HIS LOVER will also perform in Ottawa, ON from January 3 to 13, 2018 at the National Arts Centre's Azrieli Studio. Tickets are available through ticketmaster.ca
Photo credit: Derek Kwan and Jordan Cheng, photo by Cylla von Tiedemann