BWW Review: THE BALLAD OF MU LAN at Imagination Stage
Children will thoroughly enjoy the vivid physicality of Alvin Chan's hour long adaptation of The Ballad of Mu Lan, onstage at Bethesda's Imagination Stage through August 11. Chan's use of the stylized movement Jingju (Beijing Opera) suits both the 1500 year old Chinese tale and the requisites of children's theatre: the style is broad and active yet simple to read. Chan's script in up to date English completes a package which also includes gorgeous scenery and props by Joseph D. Dodd, sensational cinematic, animated videos by Chesley Cannon, and colorful costumes, also by Chan.
Chan directs the strong cast who must sing as well as act, perform intricate, full body movements, and execute elaborate battles with swords and lances. Justine "Icy" Moral, in the title role, can be chipper playing Xianqi at home with her father, powerful learning to be a soldier, and aspirational singing alone of her evolving self-awareness ("The Way that I See Me"). And she can be funny too, which she has to be to manage her time with her two sidekicks (aka "Team Useless--the kids in the audience will love them), played like a youthened double act by Rafael Sebastian and Jacob Yeh--think Daffy Duck and Porky Pig begat a pair of twentysomethings with Laurel and Hardy.
The large circular panel amid red drapes and red paper lanterns changes from beautiful still images, such as Mu Lan's home in two seasons or the night-time sky, to Cannon's action-packed videos. When Mu Lan and her father, Hua Hu, also played by Jacob Yeh, pore over Xianqi, the board game known in English as Chinese Chess or (better!) Elephant Chess, the board on their table in three dimensions comes to life onscreen in two. Later, when Team Useless carry their Red Dragon gun to the mountain top to defeat the invading army, the magical screen provides explosions, fireworks, and an excellent avalanche.
Audiences which only know the Disney telling of this ancient story should, thanks to Imagination Stage, want to be in the room where it happens; there's a sound that people make when fireworks go off in the sky that can't be filmed or pre-recorded. It's just, "ahhh," but hearing real people make the sound, as audiences will just before the avalanche, is something that only takes place during live theatre.
Parents of little ones on the spectrum should know that the percussion score, written and energetically performed by Matthew Mazzella, can be startlingly loud; and so can the recorded music which accompanies the singing. There's a sensory-friendly performance scheduled for July 21.
Imagination Stage brings this tale as old as time about the strength of family and the power of women to splendid life. For more information, call 301.280.1660 or visit imaginationstage.org.
Photo by Margot Schulman