Review: Mulan the Musical

Red Poppy Ladies Mulan

With its rhythmic name and its size, the La MaMa Experimental Theater Club is an apt venue for Beijing’s renowned Red Poppy Ladies’ Percussion’s (红樱束打击乐团 / 紅櫻束打擊樂團) production of Mulan the Musical.

This theatrical show, based on the Chinese classic Ballad of Mulan, tells the story of a young woman who disguises herself as a man to take her elderly father’s place in the military when he is drafted.  During twelve years of war, her valor is recognized, but her gender is not.  After the war, as she modestly declines reward for her service, she reveals her secret and is lauded even more for her sacrifice and filial piety.  The irony of this production is that Mulan’s fellow soldiers are actually played by women.

Having performed in over 30 countries and in the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the all-female Red Poppy Ladies’ Percussion is imaginative and its members are immensely talented.  Here, at the respected La MaMa, whether in unison or in succession, they were perfect in their rhythm.  While Chinese drums such as the tanggu (堂鼓), zhangu (战鼓), and paigu (排鼓) are prominently featured and provide some of the most impassioned pounding since the war drums of ancient China, the troupe is most interesting when using other regular objects for percussion.  I never thought clacking folding fans (折扇) and flickering torches could create such mesmerizing visual and aural staccatos.

Mulan is very much a visual performance as well.  There are numerous costume and set changes, and they all look great.  The percussion numbers are choreographed, and the performers are dynamic in their acting and dancing.   Director Li Zhou also effectively utilizes the cast of twelve.  When on stage, nobody is idle, and the cast members show camaraderie, particularly in the couple of especially entertaining and playful drum-offs.

To the extent that musical productions are merely vehicles to showcase their casts’ talent, Mulan shouldn’t be critiqued to harshly for feeling more like a collection of fifteen scenes than being focused on Mulan.  However, given that themes of bravery, sacrifice, and family are central to this enduring Chinese story, it would have been much more compelling if Mulan was not so frequently absorbed into the ensemble.  Nevertheless, demonstrating the versatility of the Red Poppy Ladies and director Zhou Li’s strong sense of drama and theatrics, Mulan effectively conveys and contrasts the levity of Mulan’s idyllic pre-war life and the tension and frenzy of battle.

Except for a scene with jingu-effected speech and the occasional utterances and exclamations, the production is wordless and relies on text displayed on a stadium-sized LED screen to introduce each scene. The electronic display also serves as an animated backdrop that establishes scene and mood.  This digital display, parts of the light show, and the pre-recorded traditional-but-too-cleanly-modern Chinese music soundtrack are dazzling and driving but feel at odds with the organic resonance of the percussion and the lively radiance of the Red Poppy Ladies and are anachronistic to the story.

This production is actually a reworked version of an earlier production that ran last year in New York.  The company seems aware of its shortcomings and encourages feedback from the audience after the performance.  Soliciting feedback may be unorthodox, but the group is committed to putting on a top-notch production that matches their talent.

Despite its flaws, the production is delightfully entertaining and a worthwhile adaptation of a story that people might only know from the Disney animated movie of the same name.  When you go, sit in the first third of the seating area for a better view and to feel the percussive power.

Mulan the Musical plays through September 13, 2014 at La MaMA’s Ellen Stewart Theatre, 66 E. 4th Street.  Performances are on Mon, Wed-Fri at 8 PM, Sat at 2 and 8 PM, and Sun at 2 PM.  

For updates, visit their Facebook page

Photos courtesy of Red Poppy Ladies’ Percussion.