Sunday, January 20, 2019

Shanghai Mimi

Photo by Prudence Upton

SHANGHAI MIMI PTY LTD, FINUCANE and SMITH and CAEG, present SHANGHAI MIMI, at the Riverside Theatre, Parramatta, as part of the Sydney Festival. 10th - 20th January.

SHANGHAI MIMI, is a cabaret entertainment having its World Premiere in the Riverside Theatre, Parramatta. Inspired by the legend of 1930's Shanghai, the 'Paris of the East', an international port city of foreign enclaves, a city famous for its flamboyant clubs and heady nights, a live band (led by John McCall) playing vintage Chinese jazz and blues, a group of artists (eight, in number) feature as dancers (Choreography, by Simon Abbe and Wu Baoyong), acrobats and aerialists (the Qinghai Acrobatic Troupe) - they represent a diversity of origin from China, Cameroon, Australia and France.

The concept originator was Douglas Hunter, who co-producers with Li Li. Designer, Eugeene Teh, has created a Chinoiserie of red lanterns and golden curtains and organised a run-way platform that juts out into the auditorium so that the performers can perform their 'skills' in the midst of the audience. The costumes, though they glitter and sparkle are rather aesthetically 'lumpy' in execution, lacking in 'sex appeal' - a key element, surely, of this kind show? Jenny Hector, as Lighting Designer creates illusion to keep the show 'pulsing' with energy. All of this is Directed by Moira Finucane.

The entertainment is centred about the persona of Shanghai Mimi, a chanteuse that ought to be the femme fatale attraction, its spine, its raison d'etre, its 'sex goddess' - think Marlene Dietrich. Our SHANGHAI MIMI is Sophie Koh, the artist impersonating that figure, and unfortunately reveals a vocal skill that lacks the chutzpah or variety for the songs selected for her to perform - added, there is a decided lack of charisma or theatrical presence and the night slowly burns less than bright under her 'reign' as the star of this Cabaret.

So, where is the atomic spark in this cabartet? Possibly, in the 'noise' the band makes? Simon Abbe as M.C. has all the energy in the world but not quite the finesse of a star, no arresting discipline or sense of physical finish struggling with a movement vocabulary that is repetitive and limited - try as he does, the evening cannot take off - it is messy. Energy needs to be 'harnessed'. His choreography is adequately danced by the company but has no zest or pizzaz.

The incredibly talented Qinghai Acrobatic Troupe, present an amazing set of skills and acrobatic disciplines but on the night I saw the show tended to be tentative and, worse, cautious, in the execution of their 'wares'. Many fluffs and flubs were evident. Their efforts were focused on getting it right not projecting risk at all. There was no act presented that suggested the thrill of danger. The performance had no edge, no sense of possible catastrophe - it was asking for admiration not disbelief. After the frequent visits to Sydney of performers in the Cirque de Soleil tent, this indoor cabaret felt safe with a whiff of beginners on trial. It felt hybridised into a sanitary mode of no offence and no contravention of the 'Health and Safety' regulations that prescribes the action. Sydney's underground Burlesque shows have artists that challenge the audience and usually energise their performances with a sense that they will fly or crash, they perform always with as sense of 'life or death'. They give one an exhilaration. Not at SHANGHAI MIMI, however.

The concept is a terrific idea and money seems to have been thrown at it which gives it a patina of expectation but the execution is decidedly third, or to be generous, second tier. It is not a bad night in the theatre but it is certainly, not a great night - there is no stand-out performer or moment onstage.

 Moira Finucane, an Australian talent who has made her mark as a burlesque performer and creator is the Director of this very different genre. There is structure to the production and a sense of possible build, but whether because there was not enough time (was rehearsal time short?) to whip these young artists into a calibre to what makes stars, plotting it into a constructive entertainment order (It, for instance, never knew when to finish - all the tricks were going to be shown, come hell or high-water no matter the time), is not enough, or, is it that none of these performers have the requisite "IT"? - not many do (Vale Carol Channing).

This cabaret show had a genuine excitement in the first 20 minutes, or so, reflected back by the audience response but it dwindled rapidly into a mild appreciation. In fact, the only whiff of the kind of energy needed to puff and bluff this production into a zinging mood, was the impromptu and heartfelt speech in the curtain call given by Ms Finucane - the hard 'cheesy' sell speech!

This production opening in Western Sydney hopes to go on to touring, nationally and internationally, but much work needs to be done on what felt on Opening Night like a first provincial try-out. SHANGHAI MIMI is not, as yet, good enough. One longed for the dangerous atmosphere of Ang Lee's LUST/CAUTION, or even Orson Welles, SHANGAHI EXPRESS, or the comic discipline of the Chinese vaudeville number in Woody Allen's BULLETS OVER BROADWAY - exuberant cheekiness.

Good luck with it.

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