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IMMIGRANT EXPERIENCE IN ‘RAINBOW’

Theater for young people can have an importance far beyond fairy tales and birthday clowns. “Rainbow Country,” presented at the Taper Too on Saturday, is a collage of experiences, told in song and speech, of military oppression, memories of ethnic folk tales, the tragedy of war, exile and poverty, alienation in a new culture.

It’s moving and eye-opening, and all the more remarkable for being done by children.

In workshops held at La Merced Intermediate School last year by professionals from the Mark Taper Forum’s Improvisational Theatre Project, students, ages 11 to 14, drew from their ethnic backgrounds to mount a musical about the immigrant experience.

Auditions were held to cast the show, while anyone interested signed up for design and production workshops.

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The program states that “Rainbow Country” is “a musical written, directed, choreographed, designed, stage managed and performed by students of La Merced Intermediate School.” The Improvisational Theatre Project showed the way, but the kids were on their own for the real thing .

In “I Had My Freedom, but Was Lost,” children from the Philippines, Colombia, China and Mexico mourn the familiar world and family left behind, in a song by Anthony Cheng, Anthony Ko and company.

Other songs include “It’s Great Coming to America” by Lucinda Flores and company, Irene Woo’s “Korean Prince” and Francisco Zelidon’s chilling “La Migra.”

On an imagined flight to America, the young girl playing the flight attendant ironically assures her apprehensive passengers that, yes, the streets there are paved with gold, anyone can get a job and all the houses are palaces.

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The humor is light--"So many things in America . . . Beverly Hills, ‘Wheel of Fortune,’ Las Vegas"--and dark: A Chinese-American boy refutes his ethnic heritage to the extent of accusing immigrants from other countries of causing all America’s problems, from drugs to disease. “I heard about you people on ‘Miami Vice.’ ”

The same boy emcees a “Most Miserable Immigrant” game show where each contestant’s tragic story becomes a melodramatic parody. The prizes? “A luxurious ride to America in a brand new car . . . in the trunk” and “a cruise, with one bottle of milk per child and half the passengers dying.”

Girls, as Vietnamese women, kneel, cradling imaginary babies and sing of shattered dreams.

The fledgling actors display no self-consciousness, even in the most emotional moments. The reality of the events they are relaying with so much style is poignantly evident on their faces.

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These experiences, if not first-hand, seem close to home.

The message is understanding and self-respect, taking pride in being American and in one’s ethnic heritage. It’s a necessary message in a society of wounding prejudice against eyes that slant or skin that’s dark. But “Rainbow Country” is more than a docudrama--it’s musical entertainment with a life of its own.

The direction is tight, scenes flowing into one another, moods shifting smoothly. Choreography and staging are interesting and effective. Musicians Rick Alegria, David Scheibner and Michael Silversher supply a strong beat and evocative accompaniment on drums, guitar and keyboard.

No performances of “Rainbow Country” were definitely scheduled after Saturday, but watch for it. It deserves a future.

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