Flight of fancy
HAVING EXPLORED subterranean desires in the musical Subway, best-selling Taiwanese illustrator and comic book author Jimmy Liao has aimed for the sky with his latest offering Mr Wing.
And if audience reaction at its Asia premiere in Taipei this month is anything to go by, the production is likely to fly for some time.
The musical fantasy features Winston Chow (The Wedding Banquet), alongside Taiwan singer Faith Yang Nai-wei and Malaysian-Chinese singer Guan Liang (aka Michael Wang).
It's about to tour the mainland and Hong Kong, with a soundtrack due out later this year.
Better known for his roles in Ang Lee's movies, Chow may surprise many in his musical debut, although director Miguel Li Huan-hsiuen says he knew he had the perfect man from the start.
'I picked Chow because he suits this character perfectly - impeccably handsome, mature with life experience and with that rare quality of a born aristocrat in him,' says Li. 'I was never in doubt about his vocal ability. You can estimate someone's singing potential by the way he speaks. Winston has a deep and firm voice. I knew he could sing well.'
The musical is based on Liao's Mr Wing and A Fish Smiles at Me, two seemingly unrelated stories published 2003 and 1998, respectively.
'I decided to combine the stories,' Li says. 'If you're a Jimmy fan, you'd know that many of the characters appear in an early book, disappear for a few years, and then reappear later.
'When I was browsing through Jimmy's books one day, I suddenly realised that the character who keeps a fish in A Fish Smiles at Me is the limo driver in Mr Wing. It gave me the inspiration to combine the stories.'
In Mr Wing, Chow plays a company president who's married with children. The Chinese title of the book is Xing Yun Er, or the Lucky One. The president is considered to be lucky because he's handsome and successful. But despite this, he becomes increasingly unhappy with his routine and uninspiring life.
One day, he grows a pair of wings. The comedy then turns dark because he can't control the movement of his wings and is hindered by them in his daily life. They become so strong that he starts flying even when he doesn't want to.
Guan plays Dada, the president's childhood friend and chauffeur, who is regarded as a loser. Yang plays a mysterious woman named Beatrice who's some sort of underground rebel. Yang's character was created specifically for the musical to better connect the two stories.
'The theme of Mr Wing is freedom and hope,' says Li. 'It's not a story with a complicated plot. It's very symbolic, with lots of metaphors. There's a lot of satire and irony. The president grows wings, but can't control them. They actually imprison him.'
Mr Wing is performed mostly in Putonghua, with lines of Cantonese and English for comic effect. The 16-song score is a mixture of pop and art music, with words by poet/lyricist Shia Yu - which provided a challenge for the actors. 'I'm confident with my singing,' says Yang. 'But these poetic and dense lyrics are difficult. I had to spend a lot of time memorising them.'
Chow's solo, Sad and Wandering at the Same Time, is sung from inside a giant bird cage. His wings have become so powerful that he has to be locked up for his own safety.
Yang's solo, Beatrice, is about her uncertain love for Dada. She can't find a way to approach him and he's intimidated by her. Guan's solo, A Man and His Fish, is about celebrating his 37th birthday alone at home, staring at the fish in his bowl. The highlight is an emotional ballad duet by Yang and Guan, If We Gained Love.
'There are people who live ordinary lives and look up to the achievers with envy,' Li says. 'Then, there are the misunderstood overachievers who stare back at the ordinary ones with envy for their bliss of having a normal life. Which is the better life? What is freedom and what is burden?'
Stage designer Wang Mong-ti has created a pool in the centre of the stage, with huge, translucent, white fabric cascading from the roof to the floor, like a circus big-top. The minimalist design, coupled with the lighting, creates an atmosphere of lyricism and yearning that are the trademark of Liao's books.
'What happens at the end? That's left to the audiences' imagination,' Li says. 'However, as this is adapted from Jimmy's books, the message is one of hope.'
Hong Kong dates yet to be announced