Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Blended Harmony: The Kim Loo Sisters
History Theatre / Theater Mu
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's recent reviews of Sea Cabinet, Flex, Torch Song, and Seven Keys

Kelsey Angel Baehrens, Morgan Kempton,
Audrey Mojica, and Suzie Juul

Photo by Rich Ryan
I had never heard of the "chop suey circuit" before seeing Blended Harmony: The Kim Loo Sisters, the new musical co-production from History Theatre and Theater Mu now having its world premiere on History Theatre's stage. The musical is about the four Kim Loo Sisters from Minneapolis who performed on that circuit in the 1930s and went on to more mainstream careers.

The chop suey circuit refers to a network of Asian-American performers who toured the country in the 1930s through the 1950s, playing at nightclubs usually located on the edge of the Chinatown districts of larger cities. The audiences for these shows were primarily white, eager to experience the exotic "oriental" experience offered by these settings and performers, but not to venture into the heart of immigrant communities. Most of the shows featured popular songs of the day and currently popular dance steps. What was "oriental" was the faces of the performers.

Among the performers, many bore sobriquets comparing them to popular American–that is, white American–stars. Thus, Dorothy Toy and Paul Wing were billed as the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers (even though Toy was of Japanese descent). There was a Chinese Frank Sinatra (in whiteface) who performed with a Chinese Sammy Davis (in blackface), and numerous others. Among them were the "Chinese Andrew Sisters"–otherwise known as the Kim Loo Sisters: Jenée, Sophie, Maggie, and Bubbles.

Playwright Jessica Huang wrote both book and lyrics for Blended Harmony, which does a good job of distinguishing the four sisters from one another. Huang takes a segment of their lives that was the heyday of their careers, from their move off the chop suey circuit and into mainstream venues and even a couple of Hollywood movies, through the winding down of their act. It is in some ways a typical backstage story, with an aggressive stage mother–in this case, a Polish immigrant, Lena, who married their Chinese father, Louie Shear Gim. Lena, burning with relentless ambition, saw her musically talented children as an escape from life as a laundress in Minneapolis. She created the act, the name (Kim Loo being a reworking of their father's name), and took to the road, daughters in tow. Papa stayed back, working in the kitchen at Nankin, a notable Chinese restaurant that graced downtown Minneapolis for many decades.

The show begins in New York, with the Kim Loo Sisters auditioning for a spot on Broadway in the 1938 edition of George White's Scandals. These were a series of vaudeville-style shows that mirrored the better known Ziegfeld Follies. Huang assigns George White an ongoing role in the narrative, and does the same for entertainer Ann Miller, then a rising starlet of sixteen who'd already made a few movies before nabbing a featured spot in the Scandals, with the Kim Loo Sisters relegated to being her back-up singers. The Kim Loos go on to tour with the show, their composition changing as one sister veers off in another direction. Lena's ambition keeps her from returning home to her husband in Minnesota, even as the girls become women and no longer need her protection. World War II provides another twist in the Kim Loo Sisters' trajectory. The story even includes the political upheavals in China as Chiang Kai-shek's nationalists fight against Mao Tse Tung's red army. You could almost call it a saga.

Huang's book does a good job of bringing these episodes in the Kim Loo sisters' journeys to the stage, provides clear transitions from one to the next. The inclusion of George White and Ann Miller feels a bit shoe-horned in, though they do make for engaging characters who get to deliver entertaining musical numbers, White in duets drawn from contract negotiations with the shrewd Lena, Miller in big numbers that allow for the frisky dance routines that became Ann Miller's calling card. Jacinth Greywoode provides a likeable score, drawing on the sounds of big bands, swing music, mid-century pop, specialty turns, one torch song, and one full-out love song, lightly embroidered with Chinese harmonics.

The four actors in the roles of the Kim Loos are all swell and come close to recreating the close-harmony style favored by sister acts of yore. Of the four, Audrey Mojica, who plays Bubbles, gives a break-out performance. Bubbles is the youngest sister, flirtatious beyond her years (and does that ever come across in the number "Worship Me"), constantly seeking the spotlight–she agrees to follow her older sister's choreography if she can stand in front–and also longing for friendship and for her absent father's company. I have been increasingly impressed watching Mojica develop as a young actor with the Children's Theatre Company over the past ten years with leads in shows such as Annie and Alice in Wonderland. Here she is an ingenue role, awash with talent, brimming with confidence, and ready for whatever lies ahead.

Kelsey Angel Baehrens plays Jenée, the next oldest of the sisters and the only one who feels out of place performing on stage. She feels demeaned by their act's faux orientalism, misses her father terribly, and, unlike her sisters, has no interest in stage door Johnnies. When she does connect with a young man, it is a meaningful, life-changing moment. Baehrens acts, sings and moves beautifully. She expresses Jenée's disillusionment in "The Ones in the Dark," performs a sublimely graceful solo dance while "Gold" is sung by the young man of her dreams, and shows her mettle against her intimidating father-in-law in "Battle Song."

Suzie Juul gives sister Sophie–the oldest, who dates band members behind her mother's back–a flare for comedy, while Morgan Kemper as second sister Maggie conveys her nature as the one who aims to bring order among the four girls when things get off track. Ann Michels is marvelous as Lena, a stage mother who would give Madame Rose a run for her money, sharp-edged in her deal-making with George White, and wistfully determined in choosing to find fulfillment in work over marriage. Ariel Estrada is excellent playing both Papa and Jenée's father-in-law, General Li, using his beautiful voice to good effect in two quite different roles, one conveying sweet longing, the other harsh authority.

Ethan Yaheen-Moy Chan brings great charm, a gorgeous voice, and handsome looks as Youlin, the man who offers authenticity and love to Jenée, singing the ode to his love, "Gold," with stunning conviction. His number with Jenée, "To Please General Li," is clever and offers evidence of how well matched a pair they are. J.C Cutler's performance of George White and Audrey Parker's as Ann Miller both exaggerate the outsize nature of these showbiz stalwarts, but to good effect, as it underscores the heightened reality in which the Kim Loos find themselves. Cutler is winning as an irascible producer, and Parker's straight-from-the-hip banter and extended-from-the-hips legs serve her marvelously, providing impressive dance breaks as Ann Miller.

Rush Benson's choreography does a wizard's job in creating interesting permutations of dance routines for the sisters, along with the Ann Miller's energetic solo spots and an exquisite fan dance for Jenée, The on-stage band, composed of four musicians (but sounding like more), conducted by Elise Santa, sound great throughout, though the volume of the music at times overpowers the actors, at least from my location in the theater.

Matthew LeFebvre has designed wonderful, detailed costumes for the various stage routines performed by the Kim Loos, from variations of the stereotypic dragon lady to the Women's Army Corps. Lena is smartly attired at all times, an expression of how ill-suited she is to life as a Midwestern laundress, while Ann Miller's wardrobe reflects the expectation for a star to exude Hollywood glamour. Emma Gustafson lends a hand as well with spot-on period wig designs. Mina Kinukawa's set places the on-stage band four stairs up from the actors, using roll in desks, chairs, dressing tables, and stage doors to indicate locations in simple but always clear terms. Miko Simmons' video designs appearing above the band bolster the sets by providing a broader context.

Blended Harmony: The Kim Loo Sisters does not break any molds in terms of backstage musicals, but its focus on an Asian-American group forced to contend with stereotypic, often degrading, notions of their culture in order to appeal to audiences, gives the piece an additional spin. It has a pleasing score in a variety of musical modes from the early- to mid-twentieth century United States, and a sturdily crafted book by Jessica Huang. It is a solidly constructed new musical, staged with verve by a talented cast, and delivers genuine entertainment with some social history tucked in.

Blended Harmony: The Kim Loo Sisters, a co-production of History Theatre and Theater Mu, runs through May 26, 2024, at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. For tickets and information, please call 651-292-4323 or visit

Book and Lyrics: Jessica Huang; Music: Jacinth Greywoode; Director: Lily Tung Crystal; Choreographer: Rush Benson; Music Director: Elise Santa; Arrangements: Robert Elhai and Jason Hansen; Story Consultant: Leslie Li; Dramaturg: Marisa Carr; Scenic Design: Mini Kinukawa; Properties Design Team: Ursula K. Bowden, Rebecca Malmstrom, Jenny Moeller, Jacey Stewart; Costume Design: Matthew J. LeFebvre; Wig Design: Emma Gustafson; Lighting Design: Mags Scanlon; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Video Design: Miko Simmons; Video Programmer: Leslie Ritenour; Intimacy Coach: Elizabeth M. Desotelle; Cultural Consultant: Josephine Lee; Language and Dialect Coach: Patrick Chew; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Chinese Translation: Patrick Chew, Jin Wang; Assistant Director: Wesley Mouri; Stage Manager: Rachael Rhodes; Assistant Stage Manager: Lindsay Johnson.

Cast: Kelsey Angel Baehrens (Jenée), Kyle Camay (ensemble), Ethan Yaheen-Moy Chan (Youlin), J. C. Cutler (George White), Ariel Estrada (Papa/General Li), Suzie Juul (Sophie), Morgan Kempton (Maggie), Ann Michels (Mama), Audrey Mojica (Bubbles), Audrey Parker (Ann Miller), Boom Xiong (ensemble).