Velina Hasu Houston and Nathan Wang transport us to another time, another place, another world in their magical, mystical, marvelous new musical Cinnamon Girl, now playing at the Greenway Court Theatre.
The time is 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II, the place is British Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and the world is one in which the aromas of cinnamon and tea waft through the tropical air, a world that “cinnamon girl” Salani (Jennifer Hubilla) calls home, though hardly a welcoming one for the plantation worker whose mother has recently perished under suspicious circumstances.
Houston’s book jumps backwards and forwards in time between cinnamon plantation and the tea plantation where Salani goes to seek employment, having left the cinnamon fields for reasons that will eventually come to light.
With the tea plantation’s British owner away on extended business, it is up to the Englishman’s habitually inebriated American wife Empress (Leslie Stevens) to decide whether Salani should stay or go, her decision influenced by the interest her randy eighteen-year-old son Wendell (Peter Mitchell) shows in the comely young Ceylonese maiden.
Little by little Cinnamon Girl lets us come to know—and care about— Salani, her new employers, and the mother-daughter friends (Kerry K. Carnahan and Byron Arreola as Praveena and Tourmaline) she makes while scraping the bark from cinnamon tree branches under the lustful eye of cinnamon plantation foreman Ranil (Dom Magwili).
Houston, the renowned Asian-American author of Tea, Kokoro, and Calling Aphrodite, tells Salani’s story in dialog and lyrics, the latter set to music—and gorgeously so—by Wang, who joined forces with Houston a couple of years back in East West Players’ Tea, With Music, and whose Imelda Marcos bio-musical Imelda entertained EWP audiences in 2005 and New Yorkers in 2009.
Though Houston is a more adroit playwright than at times she is a lyricist, Wang’s melodies are so catchy (and beautifully sung by an all-around vocally gifted cast) that one can only hope a cast recording will be made during the current run. (This reviewer would be first in line for such a CD.) From the catchy title tune to Empress’s jaunty “Is It Love?” to the love-in-bloom duet “Who Is S/he?” to Tourmaline’s power ballad “Eye Of The Beholder” to Salani’s self-affirming “Learning To Stand On My Own,” these are songs you’ll be wanting to hear more than once. (Like reviewers, audience members too should have a song list included in the Cinnamon Girl program.)
Cinnamon Girl’s plot can get a tad melodramatic (and the musical as a whole is still a bit rough around the edges), however these minor defects are outweighed by characters you come to embrace, and perhaps even more importantly, by characters who surprise you by defying any preconceived notions you may have had.
This is particularly true about the perpetually drunk Empress and her bratty rich boy son, whose finer qualities Houston and Wang let us discover little by little; however, Selani, Praveena, and Tourmaline too turn out to be far more than initially meets the eye.
Cinnamon Girl reunites Houston, Wang, and many of its cast members with ace director Jon Lawrence Rivera, whose Tea, With Music, Euripides’ Helen, The Girl Most Likely To, The Sonneteer, Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris, Oedipus El Rey, Road To Saigon, and Barefoot Boy With Shoes On have won him four Best Director Scenies and one as Director Of The Year. (How’s that for a track record?)
Rivera’s direction is once again spot-on, inspiring multi-layered performances from an all-around splendid cast. Add to that Giovanni Ortega’s gorgeously exotic choreography, Marc Macalintal’s pitch-perfect musical direction (and the live orchestra he conducts), and a stunning production design by some of our finest local artists and you’ve got a musical that could easily have “legs” should future productions feature equivalent onstage and behind-the-scenes talent.
It’s hard to imagine a more enchanting Cinnamon Girl than Miss Saigon vet Hubilla, whose exquisite voice and engaging stage presence have you from hello. (Salani and her fellow Ceylonese speak unaccented English when conversing in their native tongue and accented English as a second language, just one of Rivera’s many smart directorial choices.)
Stevens gives quite possibly her finest performance to date as Empress—revelatory work (both as singer and as actress) from this Broadway vet/L.A. theater treasure, and it’s hard to imagine a more appealing (or more vocally proficient) Wendell than fresh-faced USC senior Mitchell, impeccable British accent and all.
There’s no more glorious voice in Cinnamon Girl than the fabulous Carnahan’s richly resonant alto as Praveena, and talking about pipes, just wait till you hear Arreola’s Act Two answer to La Cage’s “I Am What I Am.” (An engagingly sweet Arreola and book writer Houston keep you guessing about why Praveena’s sister Tourmaline is played by a male actor.) As for Magwili’s Ranil, the veteran actor does what he can with a rather stock villain.
Christopher Scott Murillo’s magically exotic set, Christopher Stokes’ vibrant lighting, and Mylette Nora’s beautiful, wide-ranging costumes (both period and ethnic) make this 99-seat-plan production look like a million bucks, while sound designer Howard Ho provides an expert mix of amped vocals and live instrumentals.
Cinnamon Girl is a presentation of Playwrights’ Arena in association with the Greenway Arts Alliance. Additional program credits go to Winship Cook (producer), Raul Clayton Staggs (casting director), Janette Jara (stage manager), Heno Fernandez (production stage manager), and Liv Wafler (rehearsal stage manager).
World Premiere musical can be an iffy proposition, it not being uncommon for a musical to take seven years or more between first workshop and Broadway debut. Houston and Wang’s latest collaboration might not make it that far (few do), but it appears on the road to success beyond its current Greenway Court run.
Briefly put, Cinnamon Girl left me with tears on my cheeks and a great big smile on my face. I could not have asked for more.
Greenway Court Theatre, 544 N. Fairfax Blvd., West Hollywood.
March 15, 2014
Photos: Blake Boyd