The long-standing Asian Pacific American theatre ensemble East West Players has mounted an ambitious but flawed musical drama as the first original work to be produced in its new Little Tokyo-based Equity theater. Tracing 150 years of the highly diverse Asian-American experience in California, “Heading East” suffers from its attempt to present an epic panorama through the limited, extended history of one, small Chinese-American family. The production is further hampered by an uneven ensemble and often clumsy scenic transitions.
Robert Lee (book & lyrics) has fashioned a complex, humorous tale wherein family patriarch Yeh-Yeh (Alvin Ing) narrates the family’s history in California, from 1848 to the present, to his extremely callow collegian grandson Timothy, played by Radmar Agana Jao, who then personifies the grandfather (the youthful Siu Yee) leaving China in 1848 (yes, he is supposed to be 150 years old) to find his fortune in America.
Lee has the same characters move through a historic time span that includes the family’s involvement in the California gold rush, the building of the transcontinental railroad, the late 19th century U.S. government’s Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, 1920s prosperity, the Great Depression, World War II, the HUAC witchhunts, the Korean War, Vietnam and beyond, up through the family’s current upscale status as L.A.-based toy manufacturers.
It is simply too big a story to adequately communicate through the limited interaction of family members who never age but simply adjust to time periods. On the plus side, Lee incorporates an insightful chronicle of the intra-racial conflicts amongst Chinese, Japanese, Korean and other Asian-American groups that were often more divisive and debilitating than the anti-Asian discrimination from the larger Anglo population.
The adequate musical score of Leon Ko serves the production but offers no grand highlights. An amusing sequence is provided by “Thanksgiving/Family Traditions,” an ever-evolving Thanksgiving dinner that over 12 years highlights the increasing Americanization of Siu Yee contrasted by his wife Lee Fung’s (Sabrina Lu) adamant yearning for her Chinese home and traditions.
The most effective ballad in the production is “All We Can Do Is Remember,” offered by Jasmine (Yumi Iwama) — the Japanese girl-friend of Siu Yee’s son Leonard (Kurt Kuniyoshi) — who faces internment at the beginning of World War II.
The performances range from excellent to inadequate. Jao is quite charming as the monumentally ambitious Siu Yee but much too much demand is placed on his limited vocal abilities. The two most memorable portrayals are provided by Lu as Siu Lee’s decades-long suffering wife and Jenny Murano as her strong-willed Japanese-born friend, Michiko.
Director Glen Chin provides no solutions to the often awkward time-span evolvement of the work. The production is further hampered by Akeime Mitterlehner’s clumsy set pieces that only serve to hamper the scenic flow.