As a proud Melburnian and second-generation Australian of Asian descent, I’ve been grateful for my life and upbringing in Australia. Although, I understand that settling in Australia has not always been so easy.
Produced by Bingyao Liu, co-directed by Jun Bin Lee and Sarah Yu, and co-written by Jun Bin Lee and Isabelle Khor, The Best Cabinet Maker Musical is an original homegrown musical that tackles the hidden history of the early Chinese settlers in Melbourne, Australia during the late 19th to early 20th century. Conveniently timed around the Mid-Autumn Festival, I was curious to see what this show would entail.
Upon arrival, I was given a numbered ‘Pakapoo’ lottery ticket that I was advised would be important during the show. Not long after taking my seat, I noticed the screen at the back of the stage. This had me excited as I read earlier that there would be surtitles. As the lights dimmed, the band placed at the left-side of the stage became animated, playing traditional instruments including the yangqin, dizi and xiao. With pre-recorded accompaniment of the erhu, the band were led by musical director Jun Bin Lee on the acoustic guitar.
The Best Cabinet Maker follows Ah Chan, a Chinese immigrant that makes his living making cabinets within the Chinese community. Throughout his time in Melbourne, he struggles with fitting in while also being torn apart from the one he loves most.
Admittedly, I was initially very excited to see this production. Australian musicals are already hard to come by (although things are getting better), but it’s even more rare to see Asian stories on stage in general, let alone Asian-Australian ones. Unfortunately, my excitement was short-lived and my heart sank upon hearing the rhythm, beats, and styles all too familiar with an already prominent and successful musical that also thoroughly coincidentally contains an immigrant story. If you’re writing and producing an original music, it must not sound like anything else. I’ll say it straight, this musical has no future if it’s just going to copy and paste something that already exists.
Throughout the rest of the production there were some redeeming moments. I loved the clever use of the Pakapoo lottery tickets that were given to each patron. I always love it when a musical has a special moment where it interacts with the audience.
The songs that didn’t sound like Lin Manuel-Miranda’s ‘Hamilton’ were actually great. These included ‘See You Soon’ which was a sweet romantic exchange with many reprises between Wahyu Kapa‘s Ah Chan and Lauren May Cheok‘s Ah Moi. I also enjoyed the catchy chorus of ‘Like Us’ which addresses the Chinese communities struggles of existing and being accepted during the era of the White Australia Policy, and parts of ‘Play By The Rules’ where Bryan Yap‘s Ah Mok shines when our main characters dig deep and try fight fairly for their chance to stay.
But I was severely disappointed with the use of surtitles in the production. Not only were they not accurate with what the cast were singing, but most of the lyrics were in English, another thing that I found disheartening. I had expected for a show that paraded and campaigned so passionately about Chinese culture and the history of Asian immigrants in Australia to contain bi-lingual lyrics, with an even amount in both Mandarin and English.
C-Pop is a huge and successful international marvel with many artists even coming to Australia to tour their music. But for some reason, this musical does not think to really take a page out of this genre’s legacy. I can even count the Chinese dialogue and lyrics in this musical on one hand. I believe this takes away from the message of the show, which is so against racism, prejudice, and is all for maintaining one’s identity. It sadly really feels like the racists have won with how much Chinese lyric and dialogue The Best Cabinet Maker doesn’t contain.
I believe that The Best Cabinet Maker Musical has a very important story well-worth telling but nobody’s going to listen if it just sounds like something else that has already been done. This musical has the potential to succeed but only if the ‘Hamilton’ style songs are omitted entirely and the show is completely reworked to have its own signature sound. At present, it does not. I also would like to point out, even Lin-Manuel Miranda’s other works including ‘In The Heights’ do not sound like ‘Hamilton’.
The Best Cabinet Maker Musical played at Library at the Docks from September 28th to October 1st. While this run is over, they do have a concert version that will be performed on Saturday October 7th at the Museum of Chinese Australian History in Chinatown Melbourne.
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