A sensationally talented, mostly very young cast of Asian-American triple-threats, exciting, eclectic choreography, and a story that merits retelling are the best reasons to catch East West Players’ season closer, Tim Dang and Joel Iwataki’s Beijing Spring. The musical itself, however, still needs work despite considerable revision since its 1999 World Premiere.
The Beijing Spring in question is the Spring Of ’89, the months during which university students, factory workers, intellectuals, and other post-Cultural Revolution Chinese banded together in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to demand social equality, a “Communist Party Without Corruption,” freedom of the press, and democracy. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)
Beijing Spring The Musical focuses on the students, most particularly Xian (Daniel May), at odds not just with the Chinese government but with the older generation, represented by his father Baba (Radmar Agana Jao) and grandfather Yeh Yeh (Marc Oka). Also figuring prominently are Xian’s girlfriend Qiao (Nicole Barredo) and fellow protesters Niu (DT Matias), Peishi (Jaime Barcelon), Da (Reuben Uy), and Ling (Cailan Rose).
Songs like “Meeting Tonight” and “Martyrs Of The Square” trace the students’ path, the “The Dream” and “Dear Ba, Dear Son” give voice to Xian and his family, and “Missed You In Class” and “Eyes Of The World On China” shine the spotlight on our young lovers. Meanwhile, “Harden The Hardline” and its reprise allow Deng Xiaoping (Jao, back as the PRC leader) and his fellow party chiefs to express governmental concerns regarding the student protests.
Among the changes distinguishing Beijing Spring’s 25th-Tiananmen-Square-Protests-Anniversary revival from the 1999 original are a 25-minute-shorter, intermissionless running time, the addition of a 4-member supporting ensemble, new dance sequences, and what director-lyricist Dang describes as a more balanced look at the Tiananmen Square crisis, as seen from a quarter-century distance and reflecting the changes that have taken place in China since the spring of ’89. In other words, CPC hardliners are no longer lampooned but given their fair say this time round.
All this is well and good, and kudos to East West Players for not rolling out a retread, but significant problems remain unsolved.
First and foremost is the musical’s sung-through format, one which any musical theater aficionado can tell you was all the rage back when Dang and Iwataki were first writing Beijing Spring in the ‘90s. (Think Evita, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Rent.)
A look at 21st Century Broadway (The Producers, Hairspray, In The Heights, The Book Of Mormon, Kinky Boots, et al) reveals spoken dialog to have made a justified comeback, fleshing out storylines and characters and letting songs taking the place of dialog only when needed. Rodgers and Hammerstein got it right when they wrote Oklahoma! and so have their successors all the way up to the song-and-book writers of this year’s Tony Award front-runner A Gentlemen’s Guide To Love And Murder. (Emphasis on book.)
Beijing Spring is book-free, and though we get the facts, the musical suffers from a lack of dialog that would help us get to know and care about Xian and his relationships with his family, Qiao, and his fellow protesters. We observe them all, but since we find it hard to distinguish one from another, the emotional connection is missing.
Then there’s Iwataki’s music, which (to this reviewer’s ears at least) fails to inspire a desire for a second listen, quite the opposite of Nathan Wang’s catchy tunes for the recent, similarly Asian-themed Cinnamon Girl (or Wang’s Tea, With Music and Imelda, both for East West Players). Those three musicals proved melodically memorable in a way tht Beijing Spring does not.
Lyricist Dang does his best to tell Xian and the others’ stories entirely through song, but it’s hard to make lyrics work when you’re saddled with ideas (and multiple-syllable words) like “democracy,” “government,” “repression,” and others that don’t lend themselves to the deftness that separates truly effective lyric writing (like Tim Rice’s for any number of Andrew Lloyd-Webber sung-through musicals) from prose, particularly politically-themed prose.
Fortunately, Dang scores considerably higher marks as director, staging Beijing Spring with visual effectiveness, swift pacing, and all-around first-rate work from his cast.
Director Dang could hardly be better aided and abetted in this than he is by Broadway/EWP vet Marcus Choi, whose striking choreography has been imaginatively tailored to fit both characters and songs, from tai chi-inspired moves for the older folks to militaristic steps for the hardliners to Broadway-pizzazz for the younger generation.
Best of all is Beijing Spring’s cast of bona fide triple-threats, who give their all to flesh out out underwritten characters.
May, Jao, and Oka sing gorgeously as they bring to life three very different generations of Chinese men, with Jao also clearly distinguishing between Ba and Deng. Barredo follows her star turn as Kim in Candlelight Pavilion’s Miss Saigon with once again exquisitely sung work as Qiao, and Matias, Barcelon, Uy, and Rose are equally splendid. If only we got to know and care more about just who Xian, Baba, Yeh Yeh, Qiao, Niu, Peishi, Da, and Ling really are.
Ensemble members Carissa Dizon, Jay Gamboa, Belle Hengsathorn, Jonathan Kim, Jason Ko, and Nancy Lam do bang-up work as well, with most in the cast executing multiple tracks as both students and hardliners, and in one of the production’s best numbers, as multilingual international reporters.
There can be no quibbling about Beijing Spring’s superb design team, beginning with scenic designer Christopher Scott Murillo’s multi-locale, multi-level set with its Chinese flags and banners, courtesy of property master Junmei Fu, who also designed the Chinese subtitles projected throughout. (I must confess to not having realized that these projections were intended for audience members who might not understand Beijing Spring’s English-language lyrics. I simply found them perplexing.) Guido Girardi’s lighting is vivid and varied. Best of all among design elements are Yuheng Dai’s costumes, a broad range of late-‘80s Chinese styles, from student wear to traditional garb to military uniforms.
Noriko Olling Wright gets top marks as musical director, conducting and playing keyboard in Beijing Spring’s five-piece orchestra, featuring guitar, bass guitar, percussion, and the traditional Chinese pipa.
Ondina V. Dominguez is stage manager. Kelli Shimada is assistant choreographer. Damien Lu is China consultant.
Following the terrific Steel Magnolias, the surprisingly delightful The Nisei Widows’ Club: How Tomi Got Her Groove Back, and the crowd-pleasing A Nice Indian Boy, Beijing Spring comes as a disappointment, and it’s certainly not that East West Players can’t do musicals old and new with the best of them. (Krunk Fu Battle Battle, Pippin, and a slew of Sondheim have made that abundantly clear.)
As it stands now, Beijing Spring is a good show. It could have been a great one.
East West Players, David Henry Hwang Theatre, 120 Judge John Aiso St., Los Angeles.
May 21, 2014
Photos: Michael Lamont