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Shanghai Lil's

Jaygee Macapugay delivers a charismatic performance in Pan Asian Repertory's revival of this otherwise middling tuner.

Jaygee Macapugay and Whitney Kam Lee
in Shanghai Lil's
(© Corky Lee)
If all you ask of a musical is a basic love story embellished by middling song and dance sequences of no discernible distinction, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre's revival of the company's 1997 tuner, Shanghai Lil's, at the West End Theater, might suffice. We've come to expect more, however, and this show, with its predictable book and torturously simplistic lyrics by Lilah Kan, set to plodding music by Louis Stewart, is just not very engaging.

The setting is San Francisco's Chinatown during the fall of 1941 (so we know, though the characters don't, the turmoil that world history has in store). Shopworn dancer/chanteuse Mei-mei (Jaygee Macapugay), growing weary of a gypsy's peripatetic life and at least one bad romantic choice (perhaps a string of them), offers to direct an amateur night that Lil (elegant Christine Toy Johnson) hopes will stir up business at the restaurant she's now running solo after the death of her husband. "What uncertain times we are living through," sings Lil (half the songs consist of over-obvious interior monologues). "You must press through the hullabaloo."

The entertainment add-on is the brainchild of Chase (the winning Whitney Kam Lee), a waiter and would-be dancer -- and yes, he starts the show off by romancing a mop. Once the plan is fomented, it's the standard "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" scenario. Sara (Leane Cabrera), a wholesome Japanese-American teen staying with Lil, is pressed into service, as are her fellow waitresses (Rebecca Lee Lerman and Lisa Villamaria, who appear to have been instructed to mug to the max) and a would-be comic (Timothy Ng), who delivers an arsenal of groaners while sporting Groucho glasses.

Despite the show's limitations, some of the performers still manage to impress. Macagugay has charisma to spare, and the scene brightens considerably every time she steps on stage. She also sensitively handles her character's nascent romance with the much younger, inexperienced Chase. If Cabrera is over-ingenuous as Sara, it's because this model teen's "gee whiz" outlook is written in: the actress nonetheless manages to lend the role some authenticity and grace.

And if there's anything more to be said in the show's favor, it's a treat to hear unamplified voices for a change. The church rotunda occupied by the West End Theater has excellent acoustics -- not really a plus, though, when you can't quite tell whether the synthesizer that serves as sole accompaniment to the upright piano is aiming for flute or violin.