China Press, Jing Lee, 9/17/17

(By China Press reporter Jing Lin on Sep 17 in New York)

The Chinese love classic “Romance of the Western Chamber”, now adapted as an English musical, opened on Sep 16 at the off-Broadway TADA! Theater in New York. Originally adapted for the stage during the Yuan Dynasty, it is considered a Chinese counterpart of Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet “. The story is about A-Rei Chang the scholar and Ying Ying Tsui the young lady, who are brought together by Ying Ying’s maid Hong Niang. This adaptation has a book and lyrics by Howard Rubenstein, who is a retired doctor graduated from Harvard Medical School,  and music by American composer Max Lee, based on Chinese folk melodies.

The creative team of this production is cross-cultural. It consists of director Shela Xoregos, music director Erich Rausch, and choreographer Mandarin Wu. The cast comprises 11 Asian actors, 5 of which are of Chinese descent, including the actors playing Chang and Ying Ying. They are Charles Pang (Chang), who is from Hong Kong, Jessica Wu (Ying Ying), Albert Hsueh (Cheng Heng), who is from Taiwan, Jee-Heng Liao (General Du), who is also from Taiwan, and Ying Zhang (Ensemble).

Retelling the Story in the Form of A Broadway Musical

This English adaptation has been performed in China and California. This is its New York premiere, having an opening on Sep 16 at TADA! Theater at 28th Street and Broadway. The 100-seat venue was fully packed at the opening night.

Faithful to the original story, but in the form of a Broadway musical, the show is interwoven with dialogue, narrative, dance and songs. Stances and gestures, as performed by the actors, are borrowed from Chinese dance and operas to contribute to the show’s period aesthetics. This two-and-a-half-hour-long adaptation has two acts and is smooth and compact. Interspersed with humorous dialogues, lyrical singing and light-hearted lines, it captured the audience’s attention from the beginning until the end. The audience was also able to enjoy the story more because the playwright had chosen to translate classical Chinese literature into English words that are both accurate and easy to understand.

Lead actor Charles Pang was a child actor at TVB in Hong Kong and a graduate from the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) in New York. His part is so substantial his character Chang is almost the essence of the show. Chang looked elegant and pure at heart. With his affectionate singing, Pang fully delivered Chang’s passion for romance. The actress playing Ying Ying, who is a strong singer, gave a performance that was rich with emotions. The two matched each other well. Hong Niang is witty and lively, Ying Ying’s mother Lady Tsui is proud and strict, and the show’s antagonist Cheng Heng is cunning and overbearing. All characters were vividly portrayed.

Pang expressed that this musical adaption was aesthetically different from its traditional Chinese opera counterparts, as it was retold by Westerners, and it might not be easy for them to understand the Chinese psyche. For example, Ying Ying can be compared with ladies living in the Victorian period, whose desires were suppressed by social expectations, to understand her major inner conflict, which is very similar. The two forces, as they are expressed and explored in one character, is a main feature of the show.

Pang hoped that more people from the Chinese community would go to the theatre. “I hope that more Chinese would come so I can see how they would react, and I hope that they would come with an open mind because, being a cross-cultural production, ours would be different from how the story is usually portrayed, but I believe what our Western creators see in our culture will give the audience something fresh and unique.”

“Romance of the Western Chamber” opened on Sep 16 and runs through Oct 1 (Sun). Regular tickets are priced at $27.50 each and VIP tickets at $32.50. More information can be found at the official website romanceofthewesternchamber.com.

Production photos by Charles Chessler.