A Chinese restaurant deliveryman who speaks limited English is trapped in an elevator for 81 hours. This might not sound like the most natural hero for a musical, but “Stuck Elevator,” getting a second go-round at a fittingly small space after its premiere earlier this year at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, is a fascinating and compelling work that proves strong ideas can’t be contained in simple boxes. Coming at a time when immigration regularly makes headlines, this poised-to-tour show is an effective cri de coeur, giving face and voice to the silent.
Production is claustrophobic and expansive, intimate and existential, personal and political all at once. It also taps into a wide range of musical forms — from heartbreaking ballads to operatic arias to hip-hop rants — to tell its story, based on a true incident in 2005. After making a delivery in a Bronx residential tower, Guang (Julius Ahn) finds himself stuck between floors in an elevator. Because he is an undocumented immigrant he balks at calling for help, fearing the police will discover his status and send him back to China.
So he hopes others will somehow discover his plight. But after hours, then days, he is forced to grapple with hunger, his bladder and a deteriorating mind and will. Flights of fantasy give this lonely, isolated man refuge — and make the show step out of its confined space (well-designed with easy-to-travel basics by Daniel Ostling).
Guang thinks of the wife Ming (Marie-France Arcilla) and son Wang Yue (Raymond Lee) he left behind, waiting for him to pay him an $80,000 debt to a smuggler and send for them, too; of his nephew who traveled with him in the bowels of a container ship, but who didn’t make it to the States; of Marco, a savvy Hispanic co-worker (a dynamic Joel Perez) and the terrifying wife of the restaurant owner (Francis Jue), who exploits Guang’s underground status.
As time ticks away, helmer Chay Yew keeps the show energized and varied, creating moments of comic fantasy, poignant reflection and tension. Byron Au Yong’s score proves accessible, engaging and at times soaring, especially in the solo turns from Ahn, who gives Guang a specific identity and making him relatable to anyone seeking an American dream.
Accompanied by a four-piece ensemble, the entire cast sings gorgeously and gives solid support playing a variety of role,s ranging from those closest to Guang to fanciful characters such as Fortune Cookie Monster and Otis the Elevator.
Librettist Aaron Jafferis hits all the right verbal notes, too — hip, poetic and real — making Guang not just a symbol but a person, and giving a lively, lonely and human voice to him.