|Over the past three decades, many
of the plays produced by Los Angeles-based East West Players have
focused on the Asian struggle to assimilate into American culture. So "Heading
East, the Musical" typifies the often outstanding work of East West, now
in its 33rd year.
At the Irvine Barclay Theatre on
March 3, guest host George Takei explained that, for the many Asians
who crossed the Pacific, starting their new lives meant "heading East."
These Asians — Chinese and Japanese at first and, later, Koreans,
Vietnamese and more — became "part of the turbulent heritage of California,
and an important part of California's legacy."
The play, which concluded its three-night
Barclay staging March 5, follows the journey of Siu Yee Tong as he
leaves his native China and stakes his future on the booming fortunes of
Gold Rush-era California.
With story by Robert Lee, the play
opens with the elderly Siu Yee (Alvin Ing), affectionately called
Yeh-yeh by his family, visiting with his grandson Timothy (Radmar Agana
Jao), home from college for a holiday break.
Timothy is so fully assimilated into
American culture, he intensely dislikes his new roommate, a native of China.
Yeh-yeh decides it's time Timothy learned about his heritage.
Yeh-yeh's story then flashes back
to 1848 when, as Siu Yee, he decides to sail to California. From
this point on, Jao takes over the role of Siu Yee, whom we follow over
the next several decades.
Lee's libretto asks us to accept
that, from 1848 to the 1940s, Siu Yee scarcely ages. It's a theatrical
conceit that stretches the play's credibility, but which allows us to follow
the rising and falling fortunes of the Tong family without too much
confusion over characters, while hitting the highlights of the Asian-American
Under Glen Chin's direction, the
tone of the first act is largely humorous (but with serious undertones),
and Leon Ko's songs, with Lee's lyrics, are easy on the ears and full of
The mood grows darker as Siu Yee,
his family and friends confront a confusing variety of social issues, from
immigration and exclusion laws to discrimination from America's white majority.
Act 2 contains powerful songs (well-staged by Greg Chun) and a stirring
Jao is exceptional as Siu Yee, who
strives to become a "true" American. Sabrina Lu is equally strong
as his patient wife, frustrated in her efforts to preserve the couple's
Ing is gently sly as Yeh-yeh. Jenny
Murano is strong-willed as the enlightened Japanese woman, Michiko,
and the show's ensemble — Tedd Szeto, Kurt Kuniyoshi, Yumi Iwama, Emily
Kuroda and Chanel Akiko Hirai — are versatile actors and capable musical