Review: CCOHK’s Shark Symphony
A Smorgasbord of Spectacle

Shark Symphony (City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong)
Tsuen Wan Town Hall Auditorium
20,21 April, 2024

City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong Shark Symphony poster

At the sight of City Chamber Orchestra’s poster — a giant shark chowing down on a hapless violin — you’d be forgiven in dismissing this whole endeavour as Baby Shark (but make it Classical!). And you’d be wrong. In her latest theatrical concoction to hit the stage, Leanne Nicholls’ musical serves up a smorgasbord of spectacle, replete with dancers, acrobats, contortionists, and more. It is a show for all ages, in keeping with the sustainability theme of the times we live in and, as such shows go, it comes with a moral message: sharks are friends, not food.

The story is simple: Ken (straight man Perrin Pang) and his associate Michael (a fawning Michael Sharmon) have opened up an exciting new underwater restaurant aptly named The Deep, attracting epicurious luminaries such as Mrs. Moore (charismatically portrayed by Jacqueline Gourlay-Grant) and more besides. Seafood sustainability is the rule and not the exception at the Deep, and for a while, things go swimmingly; the restaurant owners even hire Australian shark expert Shum (played by an amiable Marc Ngan) for advice on how best to attract sharks to their fine establishment. Trouble strikes when Ken falls in love with the singer Belle (a sweet-voiced Crisel Consunji); her mother, the restaurant investor Doris Ng (played with relish by Jessica Ng) , absolutely insists on serving shark fin at the wedding banquet.

City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong Shark Symphony

© City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong

As the curtain rose, the audience saw the orchestra behind a scrim onto which an underwater scene was projected. It was as though they were playing underwater, and it made for an arresting sight; children and adult alike were immediately swept into the splendour of it all. Wonder followed wonder: a caped acrobat (Zara Asa) spinning onstage in a Cyr wheel, armoured percussionists beating an otherworldly tattoo on water phones, a dancer in a massive bubble. In short, Shark Symphony was a feast for the senses.

The music was largely composed by Simon Whiteside, and although at times it veers towards the derivative, it is impossibly catchy and a real treat for the ears. Additionally, the orchestral currents, helmed by concertmaster Amelia Chan, surged at moments of high drama, propelling the musical score forward even when certain lyrics faltered. By the time “Shiver of Sharks” (a composition by Paalenan) reared its head, the audience went wild. This was largely due to the talents of Finnish throat singer Antti Paalenan whose gravelly voice and rocker-accordion skills infused the atmosphere with the elemental rawness of a mosh pit. This was the most primal performance in the musical landscape of the show, and came as a delightful surprise for a normally staid Hong Kong audience. Indeed, some of the children may well have experienced their first rave…in a concert hall!

All the same, Shark Symphony feels like a hybrid: not quite a musical, not quite a musical revue; it mostly revolved around guests ordering seafood dishes, which would then be accompanied by a corresponding act. For instance, lobster burlesque arrived with a steamy trio of burlesque dancers, a Chinese sword dancer (a stunning turn by Li Tuokun) performed alongside the swordfish entree, squid was served with a seventies disco number. All great fun, albeit slightly Fawlty Towers in which random characters shuffle on and off and shenanigans ensue.

City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong Shark Symphony

© City Chamber Orchestra of Hong Kong

However, one does expect the songs in a musical to move the action forward, or at least be more integrated into the drama of the show; I kept expecting one of the actors to open their mouth and sing — which ultimately, only Belle, as the resident singer, did. The music in this production is more about mood-making; the smoky vocals of jazz singer Ela Allegre, for example, are particularly effective in transporting a listener to a Moulin Rouge-esque locale; at the finale, she sings an eerie extended high note reminiscent of siren song. Not to be outdone, Consunji sings a poignant ballad near the end of the show, when the shark —thrillingly danced by breakdancer BBoy Think— dies; hers is a soulful lament for the cruelty of mankind. (Her character, however, seems blissfully unaware of her mother’s betrayal.)

Occasionally, as with all shows, there were some awkward moments. The shark’s death was made comedic due to a lighting issue, which effectively trapped the dancer onstage in a square of red light; the poor man eventually had reanimate himself and slink offstage, ruining whatever pathos his dance had conjured up. Moreover, the costumes, though visually striking, were unclear in concept, which hindered the storytelling somewhat; in truth I was never quite certain as to whether the performers were imaginative allusions to actual sea creatures, or if they were players in a play.

The costumes, moreover, needed refinement. For example, the sinuous movements of the jellyfish belly dancers (led by Carmanie Ng)— all three adorned with wide-brimmed mushroom hats lit by dangling LED lights— were overshadowed by the cumbersome costumes, while the swordfish character’s overly traditional robes concealed the very grace and speed required to depict the fish itself. Most perplexing of all was Belle’s octopus costume—a bright butter-yellow reminiscent of the titular Disney Princess, with a matching skirt under which peeked the tentacles of the Ursula the Sea Witch. It is an odd flourish, although certainly very striking, and a definite crowd-pleaser. More effective were the sea dragons (contortionists Yomex Ho and Jodie Yung) in their black-and-white striped suits accentuating their jaw-dropping flexibility, and the yeti lobsters played by the Acrofamily in their fringed white bodysuits; they wowed the crowd with their vivacious tumbling act.

Shark Symphony is ultimately a mosaic of disparate elements — some that dazzle and others that flounder. All the same, despite the unevenness in storytelling, Nicholls’ latest venture is a triumph in fostering the next generation of concert-goers; there were moments of genuine ingenuity and lashings of charm; at times I was reminded of Disney’s 1940 movie Fantasia. One leaves the concert hall intrigued by the audacity of it all, and hungry for a second helping from City Chamber Orchestra.

Co-directed by Leanne Nicholls and Morton Ruda
Story and Lyrics by Leanne Nicholls
Music by Simon Whiteside, Antti Paalanen and Leanne Nicholls

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Sylvia Woo is a writer based in Hong Kong. She is also an avid opera and theatre lover.

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