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Forbidden City West

This new bio-musical about nightclub entertainer turned talent agent Jadin Wong is badly executed. logo
Debbie Wong and Gloria Lai
in Forbidden City West
(© Corky Lee)
Forbidden City West -- the new bio-musical about nightclub entertainer-turned talent agent Jadin Wong, currently on view at Theater for the New City -- contains a promising premise that is badly executed. Featuring book, lyrics, and direction by Joanna Chan and an original score by Gregory Frederick, the show tries to squeeze in so much extraneous information that it loses track of its central narrative.

The piece jumps back and forth in time, showcasing various moments in its subject's life. Debbie Wong plays the young Jadin, who runs away from home at age 15, becomes an internationally known performer, and marries Broadway producer Eddie Dowling (Richard Anthony). Ji Liang Wang plays the elder Jadin, who operates a talent agency in Manhattan specializing in Asian-American actors. Wong's scenes comprise the bulk of the action, spanning a longer stretch of years and showing Jadin's changing fortune; while Wang's appearances are restricted to the year 1996, as Jadin deals with the death of her assistant Kevin and listens to pitches made by aspiring writer Eugene (Kyle Cheng).

In addition, Jadin's mother appears as a young girl (Annie Qian), and there are numerous scenes set in a rice shop over the years that chart various events that impacted Chinese-Americans. Not only are these sequences unnecessary to understanding Jadin Wong's story, some are simply baffling. For instance, a 1970 segment has four Chinese immigrants (DeShen Cao, Sean Lin, HaoWen Wang, and Alan Lei Zhou) discussing the changes in immigration law that finally allows one of them to bring his wife over from China, while offstage we hear voices of protesters who demand to be able to use the Chinese Benevolent Association's gym.

The emotional core of the show has Jadin interacting with her mother (Rachel Lin) and brother Wally (Carl Hsu), but these scenes tend to be overladen with exposition. It would have been useful to see more of Jadin's experiences at The Forbidden City, a San Francisco nightclub run by Charlie Low (also played by Hsu), where she made her reputation. As it is, all we get is a brief introduction to the nightclub and then three dance acts in quick succession. David ChienHui Shen's choreography is serviceable, but not particularly inspired.

For a show billing itself as a musical, songs are few and far between. Of the tunes written expressly for Forbidden City West, the only catchy melody (written by Chan, rather than Frederick) is "Tell Mama" which Jadin sings to her brother. Unfortunately, Wong's singing voice is shaky and even that song doesn't come across as well as it should. For some unknown reason, Chan also has Wally singing some Italian opera classics, including "O Sole Mio." And while Hsu isn't a bad singer, he doesn't have the breath support and vocal range to pull this off successfully.

The acting style of the majority of the surprisingly large company is declamatory, with very few shades aside from some melodramatic flourishes. Wong does have a fiery passion that serves her well in several of her scenes, but there's still very little depth to her characterization. Wang also stays on a fairly superficial level, and her noticeably accented English is jarring simply because the younger version of Jadin does not speak with a Chinese accent.

The actress' greatest challenge, however, is making sense of the changes in Jadin's character. The musical's depiction of the younger Jadin showed a rebellious streak which culminates in a rather angry confrontation with a racist director who doesn't want to hire an Asian stand-up comic. The older Jadin, however, is depicted actively discouraging Eugene's attempts at politicized writing. Moreover, the musical's culmination in a martial arts film noir fantasy sequence doesn't seem like the best way to honor this pioneering entertainer's achievements.

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