Regional Reviews: Phoenix
The 1989 incident at Tiananmen Square is a significant chapter in the quest for democracy and human rights. Thousands of students and citizens gathered to demand political reform, only to be met with brutal force from the Chinese government. This historical event is marked by its gravity, the loss of lives, and the global impact it had, making it a delicate subject that deserves careful and respectful treatment.
For this new musical, which was conceived by Wu'er Kaixi who helped lead the protests in Tiananmen Square and serves as the musical's creative consultant, bookwriter Scott Elmegreen and composer Drew Fornarola are careful and respectful of the historic event. They center their story on the budding romance of two fictional characters: Xiaoli, an optimistic young woman who finds herself the leader of the revolution, and her classmate Peiwen, who isn't quite certain if what they are fighting for is worth it. The musical uses a framing device set in current times when Xiaoli's younger sister Fan Xiaoxia returns to the city square to light a candle to remember her sister and commemorate the bravery of these young individuals who dared to speak up and fight for what they believed in.
While Elmegreen's book does a fairly good job conveying the weight of the events, it lacks the deep emotional connection to the characters that there should be. For an event where thousands of students died, I expected to be in tears by the end of the show, or at least fully emotionally moved, but I wasn't. There is also a lack of clarity in the opening scenes concerning the student's demonstrations that makes me wonder if you didn't remember the details of the events that happened almost 35 years ago would you have a true understanding of what the students were fighting for.
Fornarola's score is a well-composed pastiche of traditional musical theatre songs and 1980s music styles (even with a bit of rap), though, like the book, it occassionally feels disjointed in its attempt to convey the emotions and struggles of the characters, which lacks the consistency needed to create a lasting impact. While some songs have the potential to be moving, others fall short in capturing the gravitas of the subject matter. A perfect example is the use of humor in many of the songs, which seems at odds with the significance of what the students are fighting for, as well as the final song sung by Xiaoli and Peiwen that should be a stirring anthem that brings you to tears but instead is similar to a simple, quiet lullaby.
Under Darren Lee's assured direction and effective staging, the cast's performances are commendable, with each actor bringing authenticity and depth to their roles. Lee's choreography also adds dynamic and varied movement throughout. While Tim Monson's lighting is fantastic and Michael Downs' archival video and photographic projections help bring authenticity to the material, Downs' sterile set design doesn't consistently capture the visual significance that such a historical event deserves. Lex Liang's costumes are excellent, as are the wig and hair designs by Jason Hayes that allow the ensemble to portray multiple characters.
Kennedy Kanagawa and Ellie Wang are lovely as Peiwen and Xiaoli, respectively, with both bringing sensitivity and nuance to their roles. Brandon S. Chiu is commanding as the leader of the students and Grace Choi is sweet and fun as Xiaoli's younger sister. Peter Eidler does a good job depicting the conflicted feelings of Gao Wei, Peiwen's school friend that he hasn't seen in a few years who is now on the opposite side of the students. Michael Ching, Austin Ku, and Marc Oka bring depth to their depictions of the older characters in the musical.
In a world where understanding and remembering historical events is crucial, Tiananmen serves as a reminder of the importance of free expression, human rights, and the enduring quest for democracy. I just wish the musical adaptation of this important moment in time had more emotional weight and a score that made me connect more with the characters and their fight. Perhaps of even more significance to how, unfortunately, little has changed in China's control of this topic is the fact that the original male lead bowed out of this production before it started, assumedly due to the fact that this subject of Tiananmen is still banned in China and that he was on a tour of another show in that country and that some of the cast members in this production are not listed in the program at their request.
Tiananmen runs through October 29, 2023, at the Phoenix Theatre Company, 1825 N Central Avenue, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit phoenixtheatre.com or by call 602-254-2151.
Book by Scott Elmegreen
Cast (in alphabetical order):
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the U.S.