BWW Reviews: STUCK ELEVATOR a Hit at A.C.T.
Imagine being an undocumented worker stuck in a broken elevator and afraid to call for help because you fear being deported. Such is the essence of Stuck Elevator, a new multi-toned musical based on the real life, 81-hour ordeal faced by a Chinese-food deliveryman named Ming Kuang Chen. In the show his name is Guang (Julius Ahn) and for 81 minutes the audience at A.C.T.'s Geary Theater is there with him as he free-falls into fear. With a libretto by Aaron Jeffries and music by Byron Au Yong, Stuck Elevator is a thought-provoking, sometimes funny, often stirring piece that opens the door to the dark side of the American dream exposing, in the story of one lone man, the flawed and feckless nature of our attitude toward immigrants.
That said it's not a preachy story at all. But, as Artistic Director Carey Perloff pointed out in opening remarks, immigration is front and center for Congress this week, the irony being that a nation of immigrants has no compassion for the perilous plight of immigrants.
Julius Ahn is brilliant as the unassuming delivery man, neatly balancing the passive nature of a man who needs to remain invisible from the police with the deep desire to be seen and known for who he really is. His powerful voice molds itself around the operatic melodies provided by Yong, and we get our first glimpse of the real Guang; commanding and brave beneath the veneer of docile deliveryman.
After making a delivery to a high-rise building in the Bronx, he's so happy with his tips that he sings a song of thanks to his cash, not forgetting to include General Tso and Orange beef in his gratitude but reserving special thanks to New Yorkers who don't cook.
Into the elevator he goes - only to be plunged down thirty terrifying flights before slamming to a halt halfway between the third and fourth floors.
What follows is a journey of the mind perhaps just as harrowing as his journey across the sea to get to America. He and the other smuggled "passengers" were trapped in the hull of a cargo ship where the possibility of death was ever looming. It seems he's to face death once again as minutes turn into hours, turn into days and still, nobody knows that he's there.
Yong's "hip-hopera" score mingles many musical styles allowing operatic arias to sing with hip hop as well as American musical theatre motifs. It takes a little getting used to but the eclecticism underscores the cultural quandaries of a patchwork America. The use of a perfect fourth interval in many of the songs was either a way to tie the disparate tunes together or a "writer's tick." Either way it added a poignancy and a thematic thread to the entire show. (Use of the stereotypical pentatonic scale was wonderfully absent.)
Director Chay Yew artfully brought other members of the cast onstage, opening up the space, while at the same time honoring the trapped quality of the elevator. Guang does leave the confines of the cage but it's clear that he's in his imagination when that happens.
Daniel Ostling's set is quite simply outstanding, capturing visually what is happening in the story. Guang is trapped between two worlds, China and America, just as he's trapped between two floors. And Ostling ingeniously brings the Chinese restaurant to life out of the floor of the elevator - itself a "stuck" place for Guang.
Kate Freer's projections make use of Ostling's building facades, projecting everything from Guang's dream house to the night sky with a full moon and even the inside of an Atlantic City casino.
As hunger and dehydration join fear and fatigue and Guang faces the fact that no one can hear him, he hears the voice of his nephew (Raymond J. Lee) who died in the passage across. Suddenly he's back on the ship with him fighting waves of panic and dread. Next he grapples with the smuggler Snakehead (also Lee) and laments the fact that he just recently sold his cell phone to fellow deliveryman Marco (dazzling Joel Perez), a cheeky immigrant from Mexico whom Yong provides with a hip-hop vibe. All these characters come to life on stage, including Elevator Monster (Joseph Anthony Foronda) and Fortune Cookie Monster (Marie-France Arcilla) in a marvelous all-out fight sequence.
The most touching moments come when Guang thinks about his wife Ming (Marie-France Arcilla) and their son Wan Yue (again, Lee) at home back in China. But the pauses for poignancy aren't long enough for the audience to invest themselves in; the moment of connection cut short almost like a slideshow that moves along too quickly. In the song "Shame" Guang worries that they will think of him as a failure, but here he would be mistaken. For how many of us would brave being smuggled here in the hull of a cargo ship in order to come to America and deliver Chinese food as a way to make a better life for yourself and your family? He is a hero, albeit an unsung hero - unseen and undetected - an economic refugee with no status and with nothing to cling to but a dream, but a hero nonetheless.
Stuck Elevator fits a lot of story into 81 minutes - and, like the plunging elevator, it sometimes moves too quickly - not quite giving the audience enough time to take it all in. But Julius Ahn's portrayal of the unseen immigrant is deeply satisfying and serves to weave together some of the short threads in the piece. If you get the chance to see this show you'll be more than happy that you did.