The Wedding Banquet
The table is set opulently, but the menu being served is woefully unappetizing in the world premiere of The Wedding Banquet at Village Theatre. A co-production between Village and New York's Second Generation company, this adaptation of Ang Lee's popular film is a big letdown from Brian Yorkey (book and lyrics), Woody Pak (music) and Welly Yang (conceiver/developer) whose original musical Making Tracks is one of this writer's favorite musicals of recent years. The real tragedy is that one can see what led the collaborators to adapt this work; despite its obvious similarities to aspects of the original Flower Drum Song and the musical La Cage aux Folles, The Wedding Banquet could have been a charming chamber musical. What we get instead is a show in which the main characters are intruded upon at every turn by an unnecessary ensemble singing truly expendable, generic tunes.
Gay Taiwanese-American Wai-Tung, a New York city landlord for low-rent properties, is talked into an arranged marriage with his Chinese immigrant friend Wei Wei to get her a green card and to get his old-school Taiwan-based parents off his back for remaining a bachelor. Wai Tung's male Caucasian lover Simon supports the whole charade initially, but after Wai Tung's parents arrive for a wedding celebration, things get more and more complicated, especially after a wild "wedding night" for the faux pair leads to Wei Wei having a little hum bow in the oven. True love and acceptance ultimately prevails as the final curtain falls.
How closely the musical follows the film isn't important as the core story is retained. What is damaging is that parade of worthless numbers, largely in act one, which parade a slew of ensemble characters we never become dramatically invested in, and which add nothing but dead air to a two and a half hour musical. And, what on film seemed a celebration of diversity and a very positive look at its gay characters, is rendered in a hackneyed and offensively stereotypical way by playwright/lyricist Yorkey. Woody Pak's music isn't as painful, just never very memorable, especially in contrast to his haunting and moving work on Making Tracks.
Veteran New York director John Tillinger has wrapped this mediocre treatment up in a glittery package, but he and choreographer Sergio Trujillo needed to be brutal in cutting away the writer's excesses. This not only wasn't done, but in Trujillo's case, he adds to the pointlessness of the ensemble numbers with showy but equally dramatically inert choreography. When fog rolled in for a number taking place in a Tai-Chi class, I wondered what Rodgers & Hammerstein dream ballet was coming next!
What is blissfully right about The Wedding Banquet lies with its principal performers. Welly Yang uses his strong pop voice and affably boyish persona well as Wai-Tung, and Dina Lynne Morishita does lovely things both vocally and dramatically as bogus bride Wei-Wei. But the standout in the trio of leads is Tyley Ross as Simon (pictured at right). Ross has a silky voice that could land him some big musical theatre credits in the future, and his Simon, the most sympathetic character on the stage, is simply lovable, warm and funny in a non-strained way.
Kati Kuroda and Ming Lee exude great charm and humor as Wai-Tung's parents Ma and Pa Gao, and their act one duet, "Wear It Well," is a rare oasis of charm and feeling prior to intermission. Though each has seen finer hours on stage, David Austin and Jason Collins as Wai-Tung and Simon's achingly swishy gay buddies Shawn and Sean give their all to one of the show's worst numbers, "Let's Get It Straight," and one of its best, "Give That Guy A Hand," a rare moment in this show in which an ensemble number is built on character, not on posing. Ben Wang has some fun moments as Old Chen, a Chinese restaurant owner and old chum of Pa Gao, and Mimosa energizes her every moment on stage as Li'l Sister Mao, a failed bridal candidate. Such frequent leading Village talents as Anna Lauris, Eric Jensen and Katie Tomlinson stand out in the hard working ensemble, making you wish they had better material to put across.
At the performance attended, Joseph Tancioco earned a well-deserved hand for subbing (for his musical director sibling R.J. Tancioco) at the last minute as maestro of the Village's spirited orchestra.
Jim Noone's very attractive scenic design with its shrewd use of projections, augmented by Alex Berry's flattering lighting, and Carrie Robbins' truly handsome costumes give the show a glittering facade. But all that glitters couldn't make gold out of this misfortune cookie of a musical. My plea to the authors is to put this one back in your trunks and get Making Tracks back on track for a New York run. It really deserves one; this really doesn't.
The Wedding Banquet runs through October 26, 2003 at the Village Theatre, 303 Front St in Issaquah, WA and October 31-November 16 at Everett Performing Arts Center, Everett, WA. For further information, visit Village Theatre's web-site at www.villagetheatre.org.