Once upon a time

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A performance of family of dwarves portrayed by senior artist Ngoc Giau (sitting in red costume) and other young artists

Eight-year-old Tran Khoa Quan smiles shyly when asked if he's enjoying the children's variety show Tuoi than tien (Angel age) at Ho Chi Minh City's Hoa Binh Theater.

"I don't know," says the third grader at Minh Dao Primary School in District 5, "But I like the stilt walker with a sword in his mouth."

In addition to the circus act, Quan gives the thumbs up to the performance of the band Tititikids, perhaps because he is one of 20 children who, the minute the band finishes its number, rush toward the veteran emcee Thanh Bach to get a free ride on a trolley train.

Sitting next to Quan is five-year-old Bao Ngoc, whose mother Nguyen Vy Phuong, 32, says that it wasn't easy for her daughter to follow the show.

"I had to explain it all to her, otherwise she wouldn't have understood what was going on and focused on the show," says Phuong, and describes some conversation between the performers as examples of the difficulty for little kids in understanding the show.

"An adult, I understood and laughed at these jokes, but my daughter couldn't. I think Tuoi than tien is for children of seven and above," Phuong, an office worker, tells Vietweek before leaving the show with her daughter ten minutes after the intermission.

Nostalgia

There is no early departure however for Quan, his cousins, aunt, and mother, who runs an air ticket office in the city. They stay to the end.

The little boy tells Vietweek that he has a CD of Tuoi than tien that his mother bought 18 years ago.

"My mother often plays it at home," he says brightly.

Quan's mother Pham Minh Phuong, 37, says she doesn't regret paying millions of dong to buy tickets for her five family members to see Sunday's Tuoi than tien, which is subtitled Tro ve tuoi than tien (Back to angel age) to celebrate 20 years since the first show in 1993.

Not that Tuoi than tien has been running without a break all that time. In fact, the show stopped in 2004 and only returned this summer because of the anniversary.

There are two shows every Sunday from June 16, featuring famous children's songs and dances from the 1990s performed by established artists like the pop singers Phuong Thanh, My Le and Thanh Thao, and the 68-year-old actress Ngoc Giau, as well as a crop of new talent. The traditional musical instruments of Vietnam also have a big role in the proceedings on stage.

Divided into three parts, Imagination; Creativity; and Humor, Tro ve tuoi than tien highlights family love and the daily life of Vietnamese children such as playing folk games with friends, and painting. The performance is accompanied by 3D mapping by Italian light technician Fernando Toma.

Phuong, who also has a baby girl, is pleased she can once again enjoy all her favorite children's songs like The gioi tuoi tho (World of childhood), Hoa tay (Signs found on the tip of fingers or artisticskills), and Trai dat nay la cua chung minh (The earth is ours).

They were popular numbers back in the heyday of Tuoi than tien.

"The show is still one of my favorites even though I was in my early 20s when it was most popular," says Phuong. "At that time, there was little in the way of decent live entertainment for children and young adults like me."

"I want my children to experience what I experienced," the mother says, "Besides, watching a live show is much better than watching a CD at home."

What she doesn't mention about the revamped Tuoi than tien is the absence of its famous characters such as the intelligent robotic cat Doraemon, created by Japanese manga artist Fujiko Fujio in 1969, The Super Sentai or five Japanese superheroes, and The Smurfs.

Instead there are the new characters Ti Ti, Ti Na and Ti No.
Stage director Tat My Loan, who started the show 20 years ago and spent his own money to revive it, explains that copyright was not a big issue in Vietnam back then. "We freely used these characters without paying royalties, but we can't do that today."

Veterans

To be sure of a big impact when he got Tuoi than tien up and running again, Loan invited back stars like Thanh Bach, Ngoc Giau and My Le, all of whom had been regulars since the first shows 20 years earlier.

Most of them don't mind the low wages, and some have declined to accept any payment at all as their sole interest is in reviving the show for the sake of the kids.

"I am happy that, even at my age, I am still able to perform for the children," Giau, a leading cai luong (a form of modern folk opera in southern Vietnam) singer in the 1960s, tells Vietweek.

She reckons the new edition of Tuoi than tien is the best yet. "Even though our audience is mostly children, we try hard to give them the best in order to nourish their love of traditional culture and family values."

In a way, director Loan considers this year's Tro ve tuoi than tien not so much a revival but rather an opportunity for those who were born in the 1980s to recall their younger days.

"It's a review of what we did in the past, and probably a restart of Tuoi than tien in case we revive it as an annual show for children like before," he says.

Like children in much of the world, Vietnamese kids these days prefer watching videos and television, and playing online games, to going to a children's show or playing outdoors.

"Their favorite toys are the Ipad tablet and the smart phone, whereas, in the past, we didn't even have toys made of cheap plastics," says Loan, who during the show's long hiatus spent three years working for a children's program on Channel HTV3 of the Ho Chi Minh City Television Station.

The stage director admitted that despite the crew's effort as well as the theater's support, this revival of Tuoi than tien is not financially successful. "Only since the promotion starting on June 30 have more tickets been sold," he says.

"We did anticipate this problem, and don't know if Tro ve tuoi than tien can run until August 8 as scheduled. It depends on whether we sell enough tickets," says Loan.

Once upon a time

Loan explains that, nine years ago, he made what turned out to be the last regular show of Tuoi than tien for his son, who was seven at the time, but "he was not interested in it, so I decided it was time to stop."

"In order to revive the show, we need to make some changes to suit today's children and their different tastes."

The first thing to consider is how to present the show in the language of children nowadays while keeping it as simple as possible.

"Instead of starting the show or striking up a conversation with "˜Once upon a time' like in the past, we could get their attention with a question like "˜Do you play any online games?'" the director says.

Second is the necessity for having a stage and theater designed especially for children, he stressed.

He points out that, apart from the Friendship Cultural Palace and a few water puppet theaters in the capital and Ho Chi Minh City, there is no suitable children's theater in Vietnam. As a result, it's difficult for him and the other organizers of children's shows to create quality product.

"It's an issue of national policy," says Loan, and points out that the seats in Hoa Binh Theater are too big for small children, who have to stand, crane their necks or sit on their parents' laps to get a clear view of the stage and enjoy the show.

"We have technique and talent both, but we need the right policy and investment to promote and develop art for children."

Tro ve tuoi than tien starts every Sunday at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. at Hoa Binh Theater, 240-242 Ba Thang Hai Street, District 10, Ho Chi Minh City.
Tickets normally cost from VND100,000  to VND500,000 but have been discounted 50 percent from June 30.
Admission for children under six years of age is free if they are accompanied by their parents.
Call 0908 358 789 - 0902 576 023 or email to bieudienhoabinh@nhahathoabinh.com.vn
for more information.

 

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