Screen and stage unite in a hit show from China

NINE million, that’s how many bicycles there are in Beijing, well according to Katie Melua.

Right now, with the vast expanse of The Forbidden City sprawling behind me as I gaze out over the wide open space that is Tiananmen Square – the largest public square on the planet, as proud Beijingers are ever keen to tell you – there are few to be seen.

To be honest, I’m not surprised. It’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit and not just hot, but humid. I’m told that’s unusual for this time of year and to, “Expect a high moisture content in the air.”

Indeed, by the time it comes to drive out to the neighbouring city of Huairou, the only possible outcome of such an oppressive climate has materialised.

Forks of lightening dance around the car as we drive through warm rain towards the outlying district of the ancient capital, the most spectacular electrical storm raging above.

The trip to Huairou is the reason for my visit to the People’s Republic. Here, in the shadow of The Great Wall, East and West have met in a cultural exchange that will culminate in the opening of Reel To Real, at the Pleasance Grand, next week.

Described as ‘an exhilarating blend of the best of Broadway and Hollywood,’ Reel To Real premiered in China earlier this year.

A collaboration between the Huairou Management Company and Broadway Asia International, it uses cutting-edge projection techniques to blend clips from classic movie musicals with live action.

“This is the first time that an English language, Broadway-style musical, has come out of China,” explains Broadway Asia International’s co-founder, Simone Genatt, before revealing the genesis of the partnership.

“The mayor of Huairou approached us with the intention of developing Huairou as a live entertainment, cultural city. He came to us to build theatres together, and we counter-proposed that we should make a great new show that would brand his city for its ability to build and create new work, then to expand from that.”

The mayor agreed and Genatt, together with business partner Marc Routh, took their inspiration for Reel To Real from the fact that Huairou already boasts huge film and post production facilities.

Consequently, the show tells the story of twins Jack and Jill, the children of wealthy movie mogul Archibald Cheever.

Each must embark on a race around the globe to become their father’s successor. As one sets off from London, the other begins their journey in Paris. Both must solve the clues set by their father if they are to complete their quest, which takes them to Hollywood, Hong Kong and their final destination, The Great Wall of China. There, they will discover which of them is to be heir to Archibald Cheever’s multi-billion dollar entertainment empire.

That they should end their quest on The Great Wall of China in Huairou is timely, as it was here that The Karate Kid, currently on general release, was filmed – the section of The Great Wall which features in the movie also makes an appearance in Reel To Real.

“There was a mandate in our agreement that at least 15 minutes of the show had to take place in China. So when Mark and I sat down to conceive the storyline, we devised the idea of an around-the- world journey. Then the book writer Kincaid Jones and the creative team got together and came up with the story of the twins.”

A shrewd move. In Huairou’s new theatre, built specifically for this production, I’m being given the opportunity of a sneak preview of what Fringe audiences can expect. It’s impressive. Clips of Humphrey Bogart and other Hollywood legends, including Betty Boop, are projected onto every piece of the set as the cast sing, dance and act their way through the tale.

From the auditorium, it’s like sitting inside a 3D movie and, if testament were needed of the production’s appeal, I need look no further than the audience who are loving it.

But then, Reel To Real boasts some of the best loved musical routines of the last century, big song and dance numbers such as New York, New York, Puttin’ On The Ritz, Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend and Singin’ In the Rain.

As the action unfolds on stage, it is framed by footage from screen gems such as Casablanca, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, South Pacific, Singin’ In The Rain and Guys And Dolls.

Genatt, whose most recent Broadway smash was Legally Blonde, reflects, “I would describe Reel To Real as a movie musical where Hollywood meets Broadway in a multi-media extravaganza.

“Pulling it all together, however, was a long process because we had a lot of very significant rights holders to deal with – the Hollywood studios involved with us on this show right now are Warner Bros, MGM, Universal and Fox; the Asian ones, Celestial, Fortune Star and Stellar.

“There was also a huge amount of technical precision required to synchronise the clips with the sound, lighting and live action. That was very exciting as, all of a sudden, each of those disparate pieces would come together and just bounce off the stage and into the audience.”

At the Pleasance Grand next week, Genatt is hoping that the enthusiastic response Reel To Real garnered from Chinese audiences will be repeated…

Well, sort of. It’s not unknown in China for appreciative audiences to storm the stage at the end of the show, while backstage, tales are also told of audience members handing their babies to performers to hold mid-way through their big numbers.The Fringe, then, should hold no terrors for the Broadway regulars who make up the cast, nor for Genatt, who previously premiered Cooking, a show that went on to become a worldwide smash, at the Fringe in 1999.

“This will be the first time that Reel To Real has been seen outside of Huairou. The Chinese audiences loved it. They have been known to get up from their seats and run towards the stage at the end, and we have had some small children suddenly appear on the stage,” laughs Genatt.

“So we’re well trained for anything Edinburgh has to offer.”

That Reel To Real wouldn’t be out of place on a West End stage begs one question, however – why give it an international premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe?

Genatt has no hesitation in replying, “We really love the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It’s a unique platform for reaching the global community.

“Most producers believe that you must have New York or the West End to have a global hit of any sort – we know that is not true.

“We know that the Edinburgh Fringe gives you the global community from the outset and that if your show catches on, you can tour all over the world.

“That’s what happened with Cooking. After Edinburgh it went on to tour for ten years, with seven different casts in 30 different countries.”

A repeat could just be on the cards. Get on your bikes and hunt down a ticket now.

By LIAM RUDDEN

Published on July 20, 2010 on EVENING NEWS