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[Theater Review]: Shanghai Bund, The Musical

A Chinese West Side Story is showing on Beijing Xi Lu in a great theater you’ve never heard of, with subtitles in something that resembles English.
Last updated: 2015-11-09

With the exception of circuses like ERA: Orgy of Acrobatics, Shanghai Bund (上海滩): China Musical may be the longest running show in the city. It opened last September and continues to be performed four nights a week at the heretofore unheard of Yunfeng Theater, which was restored especially for The Bund. It’s no Book of Mormon, but the show has its charms.

The plot is adapted from a popular Hong Kong TV series starring a baby-faced Chow Yun-fat and Annie Chiu. People called it "The Godfather of the East", at least until Infernal Affairs was released. In the TV series, a Japanese spy called Yamaguchi Kaoriko gets killed, but this version has been cleverly adapted to address the tear in China’s social fabric spreading from Yongkang Lu -- Frenchmen.

Set in the 1920s, Shanghai Bund《上海滩》 tells the story of an entrepreneurial Frenchman portrayed by a Chinese actor in traditional whiteface — a ginger wig. Despite his hard work and good faith attempting to grow his startup, a profitable real estate development called the French Concession, the Frenchman is gunned down by anti-trade activists in the second act. From then on, attention shifts to the love story between Cheng Cheng, the daughter of the Frenchman’s wealthy Chinese business partner Feng Jingyao, and Xu Wenqiang, a young man torn by his desire to get rich and his love of China.

Setting aside the grim comparisons to another foreign businessman killed in the crossfire between rival Chinese factions, the show is a real knees-up. Singing performances are strong, as is the stylized dance fighting, which the Brazilians call "Capoeira".

The wardrobes are an especial highlight. Rarely have stripes of such different widths and color combinations featured in one performance. Moneyed male characters are often seen in a classic pin stripe, while the members of Axe, a gang named after their antiperspirant of choice, wear stripes so broad the characters have been described as “colorful watermelons”.

One singer is decked out so densely in highly reflective sequins, it's as if, in the absence of any reasonable investment options, she has elected to stitch her entire personal wealth to her dress.

English subtitles are provided, but a little reluctantly. They’re projected onto screens high and wide from the stage, making it impossible to watch the action and read the text simultaneously. This passive aggression also extends to the words themselves, which include such accidental hipsterisms as "Bro Wen do not make me in a pickle", "what a sad", and "okay, that’s a whack".

Though there’s only one foreigner in the show, played by a Chinese actor, and he gets only two lines before he’s gunned down in cold blood, the night culminates with an epic chorus of "in a metropolis infested with foreign adventurers — how can I not lose my direction?"

And if you are a foreign adventurer, how can you leave the theater without getting the shit kicked out of you? Well, that’s not going to happen. But Shanghai Bund has just enough campy, anti-foreign sentiment to have you consciously suppressing the silly suspicion that you’re in personal danger. Mercifully, the Junyao Theater convenience store sells 4rmb silver Tsingdaos, and no one tries to confiscate them from you if you bring them inside to ease your nerves.

Shanghai Bund opened last September at the Yunfeng Theatre, 1700 Beijing Xi Lu, near Jiaozhou Lu. Tickets are 180-680rmb, but it’s not that popular -- buy a cheap ticket and sit where you like.

Photos by Brandon McGhee / SmartShanghai