Currently watching: Gateway Theatre’s Forbidden Pheonix

Image from Richmond Review (http://j.mp/eROKuv)

This year is just speeding by and I was reminded that Forbidden Pheonix, Gateway Theatre’s novel modern Chinese musical was opening only on the day of the first performance (Thursday) and Opening Night on Friday was already sold out. I only got around to getting tickets for their fourth day of performances. At the end of the theater calendar years, I scour the playhouses’ websites to see what’s up for the next season but actually watching the show is another matter. Although I was aware and excited since this time last year for Forbidden Phoenix when the play rolled around it was a serious question of will I or won’t I. Deciding to watch it in order to write it up here was the extra incentive I needed.

The Richmond Review article pre-informed me of the melange of martial arts, acrobatics, and orchestra in an East-meets-West musical. The Forbidden Phoenix book and lyrics are by Marty Chan, a Canadian from Alberta, that is loosely based on the Monkey King fable (which I do not know still) but surrounding a 19th century immigrant who came to Canada to work on the railroad. It could be complex and laden with symbols that make my head spin. Except for the show beginning at 8 p.m. after a long day at work, I looked forward to it!

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As it turns out, I couldn’t really spoil the plot for you if I had tried because the symbolism was somewhat beyond me that if I tried to explain, I would get something wrong. I’ll stick to my impression about the other elements: music, costumes, actors, the whole experience.

There were 11 musical numbers and as each one was unveiled, I was excited to name the musical style that it represented. Every time I go to Gateway, I love how they have an orchestra pit and the live music is so close. To create a fusion musical the orchestra included “normal” instruments like guitar, viola, cello, violin, and drum and Chinese instruments including zheng, sanxian, pipa, dizi, erhu, sheng, and suona. I can only identify an erhu thanks to a retired aunt now dabbling in it. The complement of instruments enabled the “traditional” numbers to have a modern sound and infused a Chinese sound to the modern musical numbers.

I marveled as some musical numbers relied heavily on the Chinese pentatonic scale (On the Road), the Dowager Empress sang in Chinese opera style but with English lyrics (!), there was a Broadway-ish number (Daddy’s Coming Home), a cute Disney-like father-son duet (A Simple Drop of Water), and a heart-wrenching male power ballad (Tomorrow). Although I thought the Monkey King’s voice was a little weak–and I’m hardly a critic– his “Tomorrow” was very effective in driving home the passing of time during the separation of thousands of fathers and from their sons/children, the impassable barrier between them that is the Pacific Ocean, and the emotional pain that couples with it physical pain. Then the Phoenix has a number and her voice is brilliant and clear (good for Disney, I think!), and she steals the show with her Phoenix Song.

Katy Perry is on the March 2011 cover of Elle and that is where I learned that “colour-blocking” is the trend this season and I think that is also an apt term to describe the Phoenix’s costume, seen in the image here. It is silky and brilliant and channels the mystique of the fantasy creature. The brash Horne character was a walking cariacature in a military-inspired jacket and that dynamite pack on his back out of which the dynamite wicks rose to create a pompus row of red flags waving behind him. The biggest cariacature costume was the Dowager Empress whose full skirt looked like it hid a crinoline and made her look dainty like an evil China doll and her Forbidden City headpiece was hilarious.

The cast I did not understand were four members of the ensemble who dressed basically in all-black all the show but they each wore the character of a different element written as the Chinese character: water, earth, fire, air. Aside from blending in while doing some set manipulation, I didn’ t “get” their symbolism. Did they remind us that nature and the elements surround us? Sometimes they would stand near the wings and dance/sway in time to the scene, like interpretive dancers. Other times, the four stood close together and represented a mountain, they were back-up dancers in the Broadway number, and they propped up the Phoenix in the fight sequence to capture the image of flying martial artists.

As it happens when you watch some local theater, you start to see the same actors again. It was nice to see actors I had seen before, Isaac Kwok and Linda Leong Sum from Flower Drum Song, and also introducing (to me) Michael Dufays as the Monkey King, Kazumi Evans as the Phoenix, Alvin Tran as Lao San. Isaac, whom I remember from his bigger role in Flower Drum Song, played the baffling and most silent “Fire” character. I also laughed at the two token white guys in the plot–one was such a big strapping fellow compared to the Chinese characters and the other looked like a lunatic vagrant with long straggling blond hair, fitting for the untamed Canadian west of the time. There were times I could see they had hit the stride and brought Asian slapstick to the stage and the choreography, particularly the two-against-many fight in Act I, were great efforts. I marvel at the theater actors’ ability to execute lyrical martial arts-inspired choreography on top of delivering lines.

As I said before, the symbolism largely escaped me. I think the Pacific Ocean was represented with a waterfall that could be a curtain between east and west. The Exclusion Act was represented by taking the waterfall away. The Iron Dragon was the steam engine? Phoenix’s daughter provided lighting for the camp… or there was a dark meaning to that? So when a large prop showed up in Act II and I did not understand its symbolism, I just revelled in the literal meaning and enjoyed the musical number that had this weird red-light district vibe.

Finally, about the “Chinese” element of the show. The program booklet was nearly fully bilingual and the Chinese surtitles ran throughout the show. I heard the Cantonese group behind me remark that all the actors were not Chinese, an exaggeration; however, neither Phoenix nor Monkey King, the main two actors, were Chinese but that’s the beauty of casting in a multicultural acting community in Vancouver. They were stronger singers than the competition they beat out for the part, no doubt. The supporting actors and ensemble were largely Chinese. Collectively the Chinese audience chuckled at the “Chinglish” tossed in as it was also pronounced funny. I think Monkey King said at one point “sei lay ah!” (“That’s crazy!”) and instead of stringing them properly as a native speaker, he said it as three separate words. My pronunciation beef was mostly with how people seemed to say China was “zun goh” instead of “zhong guo”.

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It was a really fun solo night out to the theater for me. Gateway is nice and cozy and I loved my Orchestra Centre Row F Seat 7 seat that was dead center and just a little lower than eye-level with the actors. I often go for the balcony but it’s so far away. One qualm I had was that although I’m not big and the seats seemed tight. The “average” man who set next to me seemed to have to wiggle to fit his hips between the wooden armrests and get into the modest-sized seat. Since the Canada Line has been completed, it is far easier now to get to Gateway Theatre, too, if by public transit.

Forbidden Pheonix is running at Gateway Theatre in Richmond from April 7 – 23, 2001.

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