Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

Tiger Style!
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's recent reviews of King Liz, Hangmen and The Kite Runner

Will Dao and Jenny Nguyen Nelson
Photo by Kevin Berne
The thirty-something Chen siblings' lives are a mess, and they are looking for someone to blame. Sure, MD/PhD Jennifer is a successful oncologist and also a classical pianist who has played Carnegie Hall, but her do-nothing boyfriend of three years is walking out on her because she is too dominant and no fun. Cello-playing Albert, also Ivy School educated, is a hardworking software engineer who is a total team player but who has been passed over for a promotion by his Asian boss for the team's biggest slack-off–a white whacko who has fun making jokes guessing Albert's exact Asian heritage. Both siblings are furiously frustrated and ready to point full blame for lack of life skills on their tiger-parenting parents. In fact, Albert promises to Jennifer, "I'm going to yell at mom like a white girl."

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley's production of Mike Lew's Tiger Style! is a crackling, laugh-out-loud satire bordering on total farce, where the stereotypes that are faced by two third-generation Chinese American siblings are given a fast-paced and irreverent lashing and thrashing exposure. With performances by a cast of five who at times seem to be in a reality TV show's competition of who can be more outrageously funny than the others, Tiger Style! as directed by TheatreWorks' own Jeffrey Lo is on the surface an outlandishly hilarious romp. Underneath, it is also a serious statement about the self-and-society-induced pressures and preconceived notions that high-achieving, successful Asian American young adults face.

The Albert Chen we first meet is overall as meek and mild in manner and appearance as milk toast. He dutifully responds to nosy questions in the park coming from a Chinese tourist, Tzi Chuan (Francis Jue as an exaggerated, Chinese stereotype in full-life persona), who wants to know his occupation, salary, and family background. He tolerates being called "Al-bro" and being mimicked as a robot by teammate Russell. Believing in "sacrificing my individual needs to the good of the group," he once again saves his begging buddy-of-sorts by giving him the code that he has been working on all week and that "Russ the Bus" has not (Jeremy Kahn plays a wild and crazy combination of Jerry Lewis, Adam Sandler, and Peter Sellers).

But when Albert's bow-tied, rather pompous boss Melvin (Francis Jue's next jewel) announces Russ the Bus is now Albert's boss, Will Dao's Albert begins piece-by-piece to break out of his much-controlled shell and transform eventually into a neurotic jumping jack who explodes with emotion and indignation over his state in life, often landing on the nearest couch, table, or wherever to swing his arms and decry the unfairness of his fate. His outbursts are fully supported and become part of a duet of disgruntlement when he unloads his woes on his roommate and sister Jennifer (Jenny Nguyen Nelson), who is an emotional wreck after a sudden break-up with her free-loading boyfriend of three years (Reggie, an amazingly quick role change from Russ the Bus for Jeremy Kahn).

Jenny Nguyen Nelson's Jennifer is a list-keeping, control-freak perfectionist who cannot understand how her relationship is falling apart since on OKCupid she and Reggie were a 96% match. After all, she insists, "96 is an A." She seeks the help of a therapist (Emily Kuroda), who soon hilariously needs her own therapy, post Jennifer, to help her discover, "Why is this grieving taking so long?" (one day so far). Jennifer insists she will "talk about my feelings and appear really weak" as long as she can be assured to achieve being "the best at therapy, the very best."

In a wickedly funny split scene with frozen interludes for both halves of the stage, Jennifer in therapy and Albert at work both finally totally lose all cool, reinforcing their earlier conclusion that nothing is really their fault but the blame of their parents and all the many opportunities force fed them during their supposedly privileged upbringing. Their solution: Escape the westernization of their upbringing and go "full Eastern" by heading to China on their own "Asian Freedom Tour." As Albert declares so assuredly, "If we can't escape a racialized context in America despite being Americans, then we go be Chinese in China where race is no longer a factor."

Or not. A riotous, ever more strange second act leads the two on a journey where they naively believe they will finally be accepted for who they are, racial biases vanished completely. Their rude awakenings become more fodder for our laughter while also beginning to embed in each some realization–even if only a sliver–of the importance of family sacrifice and of personal responsibility.

Jenny Nguyen Nelson and Will Dao deliciously and dynamically portray a duo of self-centered, spoiled-with-the-best-of-everything siblings. Mike Lew's script provides a Pandora's box of opportunities for each individually and for them together as a twosome to leave us in stitches over and over. However, in the end do we really like them or actually care what happens to either? Not really. The arc of their story–especially once in China–becomes so bizarre that it is almost easy to lose interest even while still constantly laughing at the latest zaniness. The totally farcical final several sequences overshadow any catharsis reached in their mostly self-imposed maladies.

The multiple roles that Jeremy Kahn (Russ the Bus, Reggie, Customs Guy), Emily Kuroda (Therapist, Mom, Cousin Chen, Matchmaker), and Francis Jue (Tzi Chuan, Melvin, Dad, General Tso) undertake are actually some of the most rewarding and downright funny, funny, funny aspects of the entire production. Their quick changes in personalities, accents, costumes, and idiosyncratic demeanors are a show unto themselves. It is particularly rewarding to see the reunion of beloved TheatreWorks veterans Emily Kuroda and Francis Jue, who originated their roles in the 2016 world premiere of Tiger Styles! in Atlanta and in a subsequent run in Boston.

With ease and sparkle, Arnel Sancianco's set scenes flow seamlessly on and off the stage, each with a dominant header announcing the themes of "LIVING," "WORK," "FAMILY," "THERAPY," and the like. An apartment in the U.S. and one in China are amusingly the same (except for plastic coverings on the Chinese sofa), highlighting that our two sibling escapees have not quite outrun their true selves and upbringing.

Kurt Landisman's lighting has wonderful fun with the many set variations, particularly once everything shifts to Red China, while Howard Ho's sound design fills in Chinese scenes of bustling, crowded streets that we do not actually see but that are enough to freak out Albert.

Finally, so many chuckles and outright guffaws emit from the costumes the three quick-change characters that Kahn, Kuroda, and Jue get to wear, with each appearance particularly of Francis Jue's colorful, comic-spun versions of Tzi Chuan both in the U.S. and in China, bringing more and more howls of laughter.

With a first half that flies by in sizzling fashion and a second that becomes a bit too weighed down in increasingly bizarre scenes, Mike Lew's Tiger Style! as presented by the director, cast, and creative team of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is still a fun-filled, thought-provoking (and yes, totally over-the-top) adventure not to be missed.

Tiger Style! runs through April 28, 2024, at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA. For tickets and information, please visit or call 877-662-8978.