Cover 150 years of Asian Americans in California within one musical. Include at least five different immigrant cultures. Avoid historical pageantry. Trace the lives of characters we care about.
These were the formidable challenges to playwright-lyricist Robert Lee and composer Leon Ko. The result, "Heading East," is headed in the right direction--telling a sprawling story with a winning sense of humor and surprising complexity--but it hasn't quite reached its destination.
After its brief run this week as the first new play at David Henry Hwang Theatre, the new home of East West Players in Little Tokyo, "East" is designed to tour as California marks the 150th anniversary of the Gold Rush and statehood.
The play's concept requires a big suspension of disbelief. "East" begins and ends in the home of a contemporary Chinese American family whose son is home from college, complaining about his Chinese immigrant roommate. The boy's grandfather tells him the story of his own life, starting in China when he first heard about America--in 1848. So the old man is more than 150 years old.
The same actor who plays the grandson (Radmar Agana Jao, fresh and lively but light-voiced) plays the grandfather in the play's long flashback. Other characters he meets in early California age no more quickly than he does. Most of them, too, are still alive and well in 1998. Even the old man's mother, back in China, still survives late into the 1970s. Presumably this was done to avoid introducing a new generation every half-hour, thereby creating stronger emotional ties to the characters. Their remarkable longevity is never explained, though.
Most of the too-long first act is set in San Francisco, where the immigrant Siu Yee opens a store selling Chinese lucky charms. A more recent immigrant (a solid Sabrina Lu) marries Siu Yee after a charming courtship song with an amusingly ironic ending--the best song in the score. Siu Yee wants to become all-American, while his wife desires to remain Chinese--the subject of a strong number that alternates between increasingly Americanized Thanksgivings and the wife's tribute to family traditions.
Other Asian groups are introduced through subsidiary characters. Most notable are Siu Yee's wife's proudly Japanese friend (Jenny Murano), who suffers prejudice from Siu Yee as well as from the American government, and a Japanese girlfriend (Yumi Iwama) of Siu Yee's son. Then there's a Korean American doctor, a Filipino waiter, an upscale couple from Taiwan and a Vietnamese baby. The authors devote more time to hostilities among immigrant groups than to anti-Asian discrimination from the dominant culture. But they do illustrate how the 1906 earthquake allowed immigrants to maneuver their way around the restrictive anti-Chinese immigration laws.
Much of the second act is set in L.A., where Siu Yee becomes a toy magnate. There are fewer songs here, and most of them are more generic and less effective.
The set is busier than necessary, and the three-keyboard orchestration is a bit limited. Props are intentionally anachronistic. Glen Chin directed, with musical staging by Lu. Because another actor was injured shortly before opening night, Alvin Ing played the grandfather while reading from a script.
* "Heading East," David Henry Hwang Theatre, Union Center for the Arts, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo. Thursday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Ends Sunday. $20-$25. (800) 233-3123. Running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes.