BACK STAGE WEST
May 20, 1999
at the David Henry Hwang Theatre
The notion of doing a musical on China's fateful Tiananmen Square massacre, whose 10-year anniversary approaches, doesn't necessarily seem like a bad one. Stranger events and characters have been musicalized in recent years--presidential assassins, a bat boy, a man trapped in a well--than the students of China's scrappy pro-democracy movement, who defiantly held Beijing's central square, and the world's attention, before the so-called People's Liberation Army rolled in the tanks and killed hundreds, probably thousands of protesting civilians. And of course there is the model of Nixon in China, the Peter Sellars opera that traded on iconic TV images to approximate the mythic scale of grand opera.
Indeed, co-director/lyricist Tim Dang and composer Joel Iwataki's ambitious new score for Beijing Spring, in its world premiere by East West Players, evokes some of the flavor of John Adams and Alice Goodman's Nixon score, with its loping, koan-like repetitions ("China's making history again") and leaping, jagged intervals. These are handed mainly to the capable Paul Wong, as a middle-aged would-be dissident who dreams backward and forward in hopes for his country in the show's haunting opening and closing monologues, and exchanges news about the uprising with his father (Alvin Ing), who remembers the beginnings of China's communist revolution. Wong's character also corresponds with his son (Michael K. Lee), a leader in the pro-democracy movement and its civil occupation of the square, most effectively in the soaring major/minor duet, reprised as a trio, "Spring Again in Beijing."
But even if you go into Beijing Spring open to the notion of a musicalized massacre, it takes some getting used to--to see the students bop around the stage like Jets or Sharks ("There's a meeting tonight!"), or to hear a young couple harmonize about their future with a little thing they call "democracy"--a word that's about as lyrical as a spelling bee.
Less disconcerting, or at least more familiar, is the oompah-martial caricaturing of Deng Xiao Peng and his Party hardliners, seated at a hilarious forced-perspective table (scenic design by Lisa Hashimoto) and sipping tea in time. And in the evening's wittiest conceit, Deng (Ing) reads the Goddess of Democracy (in a stunning replica) the riot act from an absurdly towering podium ("It could have been me/That statue could have been me").
By evening's end, the show gets under your skin; something about Wong's yearning, doe-like countenance, mutely hoping for a different outcome, is unspeakably moving, and Lee is an intense, eminently watchable performer with a searing tenor; he does iconic well, framed by Guido Girardi's dramatic lighting.
And speaking of iconic, it's hard not to be stirred by the image of students facing down the barrel of a tank, or the climactic strobe-light melee that signifies the crackdown's final solution (the excellent sound design is by Miles Ono). How much you actually enjoy the entire score depends on your tolerance for mid-tempo pop/rock anthemizing a la Les Miz--mine is zero--but Iwataki and Dang do mix it up effectively, and Scott Nagatani again proves himself a peerless bandleader.
Dang and co-director Deborah Nishimura's staging is crisp for what is in many ways a sort of historical pageant, and the performances are mostly sharp and uncloying, if a bit scrubbed and clean-cut. But then, Beijing Spring is not the kind of show in which actors "become" the characters; it is a tribute, and in its own way a fitting one, to those brave individuals who 10 years ago looked in the face of arguably the world's most repressive regime and didn't blink.
"Beijing Spring," presented by East West Players at the David Henry Hwang Theatre, Union Center for the Arts, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo. May 12-June 6. (800) 233-3123.