Jodi Long was figuratively born in a showbiz trunk and she has the trunk onstage with her in “Surfing DNA,” a meticulously executed but overly detailed perusal of her life and family history. Long attempts to find connecting patterns to all the intriguing stuff she encountered as the child of Asian parents who headlined the “Chop Suey” nightclub circuit in the 1940s and ’50s. Unfortunately, this talented thesp and helmer Lisa Peterson bombard the audience with so much unrelated material that any sense of a connecting throughline is lost.
Dressed in a white blouse and black pants, Long proves an engaging communicator as she opens her biographical journey on a bare stage (except for the trunk) that she converts into a glittering proscenium by snapping her fingers. As she offers up snatches of “Grant Avenue” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song,” Long establishes her strongest biographical theme.
Long’s father, song-and-dance man Larry Leung, replaced Jack Soo in the original ’50s Broadway production of the tuner. Long chronicles her father’s dogged history with the show, performing the role of self-serving Sammy Fong for years in road and regional stagings.
Long offers a poignant portrait of her strutting father being reduced to tears when his only child co-stars as Madame Liang in the 2002 revamping of “Flower Drum Song” at the Mark Taper Forum.
Aside from Long’s channeling of her Chinese-Aussie dad, she offers entertaining impersonations of a menagerie of folk, including her self-possessed Japanese-American showgirl mom; the elderly, cigar-chomping, tale-telling gambler who becomes her mom’s beau after Long’s parents divorce, and her very proper Scottish great-grandmother who emigrated to China at the end of the 19th century.
What doesn’t work is the complicated oral histories — her father’s early years in Australia, where he learned to tap dance; her mother’s youth in an internment camp — Long spins without establishing any tangible connection to her premise.
With some judicious editing and restructuring, “Surfing DNA” could become a viable theatrical entity.
Long’s efforts are complemented by the mood-enhancing projections of Rachel Hauck and the evocative lighting of Jennifer Setlow.