Book by Kathy Leung. Music, lyrics, and original book by Alan Bau. Directed by Andy Maton. A Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre production. At the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre on Friday, November 26. Continues until December 4
Red Letters tells an essential story with an unlikely accent.
Composer and lyricist Alan Bau wrote the original book, and Kathy Leung wrote a new version, which has made it to the stage in this premiere production.
Together, Bau and Leung tell the tale of Shen and Mei, a young couple separated by 1923’s Chinese Immigration Act (known as the Exclusion Act), which essentially banned Chinese immigration to Canada from 1923 until 1947. The aftershocks of that racist legislation are still shuddering through this country, and some people in the opening night audience for Red Letters were so moved by it that they sobbed.
That’s not only because the memories live on; the musical is winningly openhearted and this production from the Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre is often skillful.
When we meet the central characters, Shen is proposing to Mei in China. Soon, he leaves for Canada, where Boss, who uses false documents to make Shen his “paper son”, puts him to work in his laundry. Inevitably, racism—in the form of an unemployed white worker—raises its head. Back in China, Mei gives birth to a son she names Ping, but because of postnatal complications, wonders if she will live long enough to travel to Gold Mountain.
The odd accent I referred to is contemporary and western. Despite the inclusion of the two-stringed erhu in the instrumentation, Bau’s music is mostly standard Broadway-style fare, complete with a patter song and many ballads. It’s an odd filter through which to hear a period story about immigration from China. Bau sometimes forces too many syllables into his lines, and his lyrics can be obvious: “No matter what anyone thinks/The law’s for whites. Yes, it stinks.”
That said, Bau also enjoys successes. In the winningly melancholy “Fallen Leaves Like Fallen Dreams”, Boss and his pal Siu Wong watch young lovers pass by and wonder what lives they themselves might have led if the head tax imposed by the Canadian government hadn’t forced them into permanent—and lonely—bachelorhood.
With his assured pitch and contained, emotionally credible characterization, Jimmy Yi, who plays Boss, delivers the most satisfying work of the evening. In the relatively small role of the adult Ping, who appears in a framing device, Alan Wong contributes welcome depth of feeling as well as a warmly pleasing singing voice.
Although the part of Mei is limited—she’s giddy with love, then faithful and long-suffering—Rosie Simon’s interpretation is engagingly sincere and her singing is sweetly assured. Despite sometimes-uncertain pitch, Alvin Tran makes a charmingly innocent and enthusiastic Shin. And Isaac Kwok brings charismatic force to the racist Joseph.
John Bessette contributes a handsome set design, which incorporates historical photographs.
Red Letters isn’t perfect, but premiering an original musical that matters is still a major accomplishment.