Presented by Chinese Music Group
19-21 September, Union Theatre, Union House
Review by Will Pridmore
The Butterfly Lovers, written and directed by Bang Xiao, is based on an ancient Chinese tale of two people who fall in love and then find themselves in an impossible situation. It’s a fairly slow-moving romance, and exactly the style of piece Chinese Music Group does well. CMG generally puts on exemplary shows, and so I held them to a high standard. Watching Butterfly Lovers unfold onstage was wonderful but, in a few areas, I would have loved to have seen more of what was on offer.As usual, the production values of this show were ridiculously high; beautiful, stylised props and costumes, coupled with some amazing use of projections on the scrim filled out the stage well. The background projections weren’t distracting or noisy, just atmospheric (a highlight was an abstract space-flight animation). Indeed, the show opened with a professional-standard trailer video for the musical, which was impressive. Sadly, the projections were only used intermittently through the show, and sometimes this made other scenes seem a bit empty; it would have been great to see these lighting effects used for more of the show, although designing them clearly takes time and effort.The script and songs flowed seamlessly into one another; the musical, as a whole, was thoroughly integrated, with each piece of music serving to propel the story onwards while exposing characters’ innermost feelings, further explored through numerous voice-overs. In fact, very occasionally, endings of songs transitioned so smoothly as to be completely unexpected and jarring; highlighting the endings slightly may have been a good move. I relied on the English surtitles for comprehension, which were generally solid, and sometimes extremely poetic and poignant.The excellent music of The Butterfly Lovers maintained a fairly classic musical theatre feel, with a Chinese touch and a surprising pop twist that lent itself, for the most part, to the young voices of the cast. It was well-constructed, and the orchestration precisely mirrored the emotion of the performances and scenes, which was evocative. At times, given the distinct absence of much harmony, the score lacked some depth and richness. However, it showed moments of magic, such as in a big choral number in act 2; the additional voices added to the intensity of the music and gave it a more full-bodied tone. Bringing in additional harmony and more ensemble songs throughout the show would have made the music even more inspiring.After interval, Butterfly Lovers really comes to life; the second act heightens emotion and builds the physical side of the performances, culminating in a confronting, hellish dance sequence that extends for several minutes. This unique sequence was engrossing, and a good climax to the show. But, again, I would have loved more of it! Some of the best work (including the majority of the dance) occurred in the dying minutes of the show, and this is what really showed off the talents of the creative team – bringing these skills in earlier would have been great.The multi-talented cast were generally a joy to watch – they showed a delicate and intimate approach to characterisation, and their scenes created empathy and a real audience connection. Some excellent comic relief was provided by Ping (Liew Sze Earn) and Wu-Zhi (Kevin Zhang). As singers, the cast were skilled, although some of them had slight pitch issues when approaching top notes. A standout was Joyce Weng Yan Yap as Zhu.All in all, The Butterfly Lovers was a powerful, well-designed, nuanced piece of theatre, and I enjoyed every minute. My only real niggle was that I wanted more of the good stuff! Parts of this show were completely awe-inspiring and majestic, and bringing some of that feeling into the remainder of the production would push The Butterfly Lovers to the next level. Bang Xiao has created a marvel. Great job!