Saturday, October 2, 2010

PRINCESS TING AH LING

Written by the husband-and-wife team of Charles and Juanita Roos, with music by Franceso B. DeLeone, PRINCESS TING AH LING (1930) is mindless, silly fun. Yes, looked back upon from eighty years' distance, it's also a bit racist in its stereotypical portrayals of the Chinese, but to a degree you have to forgive that. It's not an operetta meant to make a political or social statement but, akin to Arthur Penn's CHINA SHOP, simply an opportunity for the performers to chow down on some scenery and sing some more than decent music.

As noted, we're in China, in the distant mysterious past, in a small kingdom called Way Off, ruled by the noble king Duck Ling (You might as well resign yourself now: the script is loaded with such groaners). Way Off is one of those small countries under constant attack, so the king decides to strengthen his position by marrying his daughter Ting Ah Ling to Prince Tu Fat, heir to the throne of Ho Kum. Needless to say, the princess doesnt find Tu Fat one white attractive; instead, she has her eye on Ah Lee, the son of the court astrologer Look See -- and he's not exactly indifferent to her charms either.

But he's a commoner and she's not, and besides her marriage to Tu Fat has already been announced, so you'd think it was time to just write this one off. But the court jester Ku Ku, who's sympathetic to the lovers' plight, administers a drug to Tu Fat that takes away his appetite just before the vows. Now the prince holds that part of his life dearer than anything else — even the upcoming marriage — so you can imagine his desperation. Overcome with his loss, Tu Fat says the wedding's off.

Well, that could be kind of convenient for Ting Ah Ling, but now Way Off finds itself at war once more, this time with a more powerful kingdom. Its king Wun Lung, who's not only aged and dissipated but gosh darn evil to boot, arrives and says that peace is possible... if he can marry the Princess. She's not happy about the situation, but still she's ready to sacrifice herself for her country's good —

— when suddenly Tu Fat issues a proclamation that he will grant any wish to the man who can restore his appetite. Duck Ling, anxious that his daughter not marry Wun Lung, ups the ante to two wishes. Ku Ku, ever prepared, tells them both that he knows of such a magician: a marvelous man of magic who just happens to be Ah Lee in disguise. He makes Tu Fat believe hs appetite has been stolen by a genie and is held prisoner inside a large rubber ball, which he must bounce repeatedly if he is to regain it.

After eight hours of bouncing the ball, Tu Fat is sweaty, exhausted... and famished. Convinced his appetite has been returned to him, Tu Fat agrees to anything the Man of Magic asks, whereupon Ah Lee has him sign a treaty that says Ho Kum will forever promise protection for Way Off from war or invasion. Duck Ling is ecstatic and reminds the Man of Magic that he'd offered the granting of two wishes. Ah Lee thinks for a moment, then asks first that he be made a prince and second that he be able to marry Ting Ah Ling. And as everyone sings and dances in merriment — except for Tu Fat who spends the finale gorging himself — the curtain falls.

The work of Charles and Juanita Roos inexplicably runs extreme hot and cold: for a pair of trained musicians who made their marks with serious compositions, they seem to flounder a bit when it comes to the juvenile operetta. That's not to say that PRINCESS TING AH LING is anywhere near as bad as, say, GHOST OF LOLLIPOP BAY or SOUTH OF SONORA — far from it, actually. But it simply demonstrates how maddeningly inconsistent these two can be when it comes to the final product. Here, the Roos' work is completely and utterly fun, with almost perfect music from DeLeone that underscore wonderfully inane lyrics such as this, sung by Ku Ku:

When man and maid a friendship form
Then Cupid strings his archer's bow.......
The world looks on through smiling eyes
As down life's winding road they go.......
But remember there is not much room
In heart of man or maid
For friendship's little fires to burn
It smothers where it's laid
And if you add fuel to it
You have yourself to blame
If spontaneous combustion
Sets the fires of love aflame.

It's a little convoluted, but trust me: it sings far better than it reads. There are also daffy little touches in the increasingly annoying cute nicknames the Princess and Ah Lee give each other: "my rose of dawn" / "my little heart of amethyst" / "my prince from the coloured cloud"... and so on and so on. In fact, the language throughout is so very, very arch that I imagine it was a challenge to speak any of the lines with a straight face.

But the music... ah Gentle Reader, the music is indeed sublime. DeLeone takes every opportunity for large-scale choral work, with as many vocal lines as he can squeeze out. His tempi may be a tad too monotonous, but he makes up for it by throwing us such delicious little numbers as Tu Fat's paean to food or Ah Lee's military march on the wonders of exercise. The lyrics may be mundane, but DeLeone tosses in the occasional musical wink, as if to tell us "Look, I know how absurd this all is". And it doesnt take much for us to as charmed by it all as he no doubt hoped.

It would be a hoot to see this mounted with all the visual overkill of the Zeffirelli Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera: the work almost begs for it. And this is a work where you really wonder what the orchestration sounded like -- as with a few other in this genre, the piano reduction has small hints here and there about the instrumentation, all of them indicative that DeLeone meant this to be played with great passion and enormous gusto.

This particular copy, as you can see from the image above, is in pretty decent shape and was autographed by the Roos. I dont know who did the cover art, but everything there, from the cartoon to the typography, was done by hand.