Friday, October 22, 2021

Review - The Chinese Lady


The Chinese Lady, playing at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, CT through October 31, is a fascinating blend of historical drama and inspired imagination.


The two-person show is based on the true story of 14 year-old Afong Moy (Shannon Tyo), who is brought to the United States from mainland China in 1834, thereby becoming the first Chinese woman to enter this country.  The purpose for her sojourn is to be exhibited to the American public.  She demonstrates how the Chinese eat, drink tea, wear exotic garbs, and how women walk with bound feet.  She is attended to by a translator, Atung (John Norman Schneider), who becomes her surrogate parent, confidante, and guide to the new world.


What, at first, is a two-year commitment for her services becomes years, then decades of servitude.  Throughout the years, she provides running commentary about America in the early and latter part of the 19th century as well as attitudes and actions against Chinese immigrants.  We hear about the Civil War and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which imposed a 10-year moratorium on Chinese labor immigration.  Attracted by the western Gold Rush more Chinese seek their fortune in the United States, but are subject to harassment, beatings, and even lynchings.  Within this context, Afong continues to be put on display around the country, growing older, more dispirited and aggrieved.


Playwright Lloyd Suh has crafted a world using primary sources, and a theatrical presentation to dramatize the story.  He deftly uses the concept of this sideshow type act (in her later years Afong becomes part of P.T. Barnum’s group of human oddities) to educate as well as entertain audiences. I, for one, was totally unfamiliar with the Chinese Exclusion Act or such horrific acts of cruelty and death.  Suh also explores the issues of identity and self-worth.  Afong never returns to her homeland or has contact with her parents or family members.  She is alone, unsure how she fits into American society; a commodity to be used and discarded.


The parallels in today’s world of attitudes toward Asian-Americans are alarmingly similar, where news accounts of hate crimes are all too prevalent.


While there is much pain and sadness in The Chinese Lady, there is also humor and whimsy to balance the play.


Shannon Tyo is superb as Afong Moy.  She impressively appears, at first, as a shy, wide-eyed, though exuberant teenager, full of wonderment and self-importance. As the years progress, the actress develops into a fully mature woman, one who strikingly brings out the world-weariness and mental and physical exhaustion of the character.  John Norman Schneider gives a subdued, nuanced performance, layered with disillusionment and mystery. 


Director Ralph B. Pena successfully creates a miniature world - the small performance area - where Afong Moya holds court.  He skillfully builds the dramatic tension from the awe and wonderment of a child to a resigned, disenchanted woman. The 90-minute, intermission-less play, flows smoothly through the repetitive scenes of Afong Moy and Atung coming out to surprise and enchant.


Scenic designer Junghyun Georgia Lee Cargo has strikingly taken part of a metal cargo container which, when opened, becomes a small thrust stage where Afong Moy presents her daily instruction and reflections.


The Chinese Lady, an entertaining and enlightening work, playing at Long Wharf Theatre through October 31.



Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Review - A Grand Night for Singing

The theatrical universe has taken a giant step towards normalcy with the reopening of in-person productions at the venerable Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, CT.  

The production they have selected - the Rodgers and Hammerstein jukebox musical A Grand Night for Singing, is an ideal choice.  The music of the composing team has a universal appeal.  The show has a small cast performing selections - both well-known and obscure - from the duo’s songbook.  They include songs from their decades long partnership including selections from Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The King and I, Carousel, and Me and Juliet.  Think of the show as comfort food for the theatrical soul or a soothing breeze coming off the adjacent Connecticut River.

The overall tone is low-key, with a few flourishes by the talented five-person cast, performing on a bare stage, with minimal props, a few costume changes, and backed by a superb seven member onstage orchestra.  

Songs are not necessarily delivered the way audience members might remember from spinning their 33 ⅓ LPs.  Director Ron Ruggiero, a frequent collaborator at the Goodspeed, states in the program notes that his goals for the productions was:

  • To revisit the music with a contemporary lens so the songs remain fresh and relevant

  • A commitment to making sure the company of actors reflect the world we live in today

  • To represent an authentic celebration of diversity onstage

He has scored on all three. The artistry of Rodgers and Hammerstein is that many of their works are wonderfully crafted into mini stories, radiating with emotion, that are open to new interpretations and creativeness.   In A Grand Night for Singing some of the song’s usual gender roles have been reversed, producing a whole new meaning to the selections. Other songs, such as “Honey Bun” from South Pacific, have been jazzed up.  There are dozens of musical numbers in the show including The Surrey with the Fringe On Top (Oklahoma!), Hello, Young Lovers (The King and I), If I Loved You (Carousel), Shall We Dance? (The King and I), It Might As Well Be Spring (State Fair), Maria (The Sound of Music), and Some Enchanted Evening (South Pacific)

The five actors/actresses - Jasmine Forsberg, Maurico Martinez, Jesse Nager, Mamie Parris, and Diane Phelan - have solid musical theater credentials and perform each piece with flair and gusto.  Their acting prowess comes into play throughout the production, which only heightens the selections presented on stage.

Rob Ruggiero’s guidance is more subtle and understated.  However, there is a confident and assured intention to his direction.  He allows the songs to speak for themselves without adding distractions or fluff.

Choreographer Lainie Sakakura enlivens the show with choice dance routines, most notably in “Honey Bun,” “Kansas City,” and “Shall We Dance.”  They are compact, with bursts of joyfulness and whimsy.

A Grand Night for Singing, an entertaining tonic for theater-goers of all ages.  Playing at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 28.

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Review of Smokey Joe's Cafe

A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut’s decision to open their in-person season with Smokey Joe’s Cafe is a smart move.  The show is a buoyant and effervescent jukebox musical, filled with familiar and hummable tunes, highlighting the hits composed by songwriters Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller.  They include such standards as “Jailhouse Rock,” “Stand By Me,” “Yakety Yak,” “Hound Dog,” and “On Broadway.”  

The production features eight smooth, highly skilled, and vocally adept performers who take the stage with a spirited assurance and sparkling agility.

The thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining musical, encompassing over 30 songs from the Leiber and Stoller catalog, is presented as a series of well-crafted mini-vignettes.  They feature soaring solo performances as well as a combination of any number of the actors and actresses.  All of these artists - Albert Guerzon, Arnold Harper II, Avionce Hoyles, Jordan Fife Hunt, Keyonna Knight, Courtney Long, Kelly MacMillan, and Judson Williams - showcase their varied range during individual numbers or in combination with others, whether it’s emoting tenderness or showcasing an energetic flair.

While all of the performers exude a polished confidence and professionalism, two members of the ensemble standout.  Courtney Long has a brashness and self-assured attitude, along with a soaring and powerful vocal range, that had the audience cheering.  Albert Guerzon is engaging, high powered, athletic, and radiates a contagious charisma

First time Director Stephanie Pope Lofgren, who also doubles as choreographer, does an impressive job providing a captivating narrative structure for each song, no small feat when you have so many scenes to create.  She shows creativity and an inventive deftness that never becomes tiresome or repetitious.  As choreographer, Ms. Lofgren augments most songs with pizazz and highly synchronized movements.  She has superbly incorporated Jack Mehler’s lighting design into the production, which adds a stylistic flourish that doesn’t overwhelm any of the musical numbers and helps punctuate the energy and rhythmic flow of the show. 

Mehler’s scenic design, a simple set with a stoop on one side, a bar on the right and a moveable staircase center stage, provides enough variety for the multiple scenarios.

One of the great pleasures of Smokey Joe’s Cafe is John Salutz’s excellent sound design.  Vocals are clear and dynamic, never overwhelming the band or blasting the audience.  Likewise, the seven-person combo never drowns out the singers.

The band is positioned at the back of the stage, some members on an elevated platform in view of the audience, giving the impression of a recording session taking place.  A joy to hear, they are a precision unit, pumping out the music in classic renditions as well as unique arrangements.

Smokey Joe’s Cafe, a first-class production, playing at A Contemporary Theatre of Connecticut in Ridgefield, CT through October 24. Information on tickets as well as theater entry policies are at