'Heading East' sings with purpose

Heading East, the Musical

East West Players production of the Robert Lee-Leon Ko musical, 
about the role of Asians 
in California's history.

The Irvine Barclay Theater
4242 Campus Drive

Closed March 5th.

Call: (949) 854-4646




East West's musical shows the joys and hardships of Asians' immigration and assimilation. 


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 experience.

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 optimism.

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 conclusion.

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 Chinese heritage.

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 theater  performers.

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copyright © 1999 Eric Marchese