Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Good Asian Drivers developed a strong online following that drew large audiences to their concerts and fueled sales of their recorded work. They offered a lifeline to queer youth, Asian-American youth, and especially those whose lives intersect both worlds. And, importantly, their music and words were great. Some years later, having given up their Good Asian Drivers persona, it occurred to Li and Yan that the whole experience had the making of a powerful story that should be told. Since music is in their blood, the story would need to be told through music. That turns out to have been an inspired idea.
The result is Interstate, a two-act rock musical that is gripping, insightful, moving, lyrical, infuriating, funny, tenderhearted, sexy, and just about perfect. A developmental workshop production at the New York Musical Festival in 2018 led to further development last year at the Johnny Mercer Colony at Goodspeed Musicals. Twin Cities audiences now have the privilege of seeing the world premiere production of Interstate at Mixed Blood Theatre, with Jesca Prudencio driving from the director's seat.
Here, the performers are called Adrian (Rose Van Dyne) and Dash (Kai Alexander Judd), and their act is called Queer Malady. Interstate takes its name from the interstate highways the musical partners drive on their tour from their New York City home to San Francisco, by way of numerous gigs and out of the way stopovers. Interstate can also refer to the transitional places people often land in, between clearly cut gender distinctions and roles. Adrian is enthusiastically a lesbian, with a girlfriend named Carly. Dash has been injecting testosterone long enough to have come a long way toward becoming the man he was meant to be, even if he arrived on this earth in a female body.
Dash embarks on the tour with loving support from his father, who is a champion for Dash to be true to himself, asking only that his son bring him back a 49ers jersey. For Adrian's mother, leaving home is an act of rebellion. She thinks Adrian should spend the summer polishing up her applications to law school, with such undercuts as "When this music thing fails you'll be glad you did." On the road, Dash and Adrian are adored by fans but encounter prejudice and threats of violence as they traverse middle America. Also, their different approaches to touring grate on each another. Adrian worries the venue arrangements while Dash scopes out the best local food joints in each town.
Most concerning, though, is a call Adrian receives offering her a shot at a recording contractnot for Queer Malady, but as a single act. Dash's spoken word rants, it seems, are too politically abrasive for a broader, more mainstream audience. Will Adrian take the bait and abandon her musical partner, as well as the many fans following every day of the duo's interstate journey?
One of those fans is Henry (Sushma Saha), a trans teenager in a small Kentucky town, named Priya as a baby girl by South Asian parents. The notion of being trans isn't even on the radar of the bullies at school, who assume the boyishly dressed student is a lesbian. This would be hurtful enough, but all the more so because no one sees Henry for who he is. He tries to reach out in every way he can, but finally the only thing left is to leave home and connect with his hero, Dash. Henry boards a bus and heads for San Francisco to catch Queer Malady on their last tour stop.
Interstate is as much the story of Henry's journey, both his personal odyssey to grow into himself, and his trek to California, as it is about the struggles Adrian and Dash encounter in negotiating their friendship, their diverging personal needs, and their sense of responsibility to their fans who draw sustaining strength and courage from Queer Malady. The two narrative strands come together in a logical way that brings the show to an empowering and uplifting conclusion.
The songs in Interstate are great, with catchy, melodic tunes and thoughtful lyrics that verge on poetryno surprise, considering that Kit Yan is a poet. The opening, "Hello Open Road," sets the stage for our two-hour journey on the interstate. "Hero" is a heartrending paean from Dash's fans, trans teenagers who see him as someone who made it happenespecially meaningful for Henry. "Not My Gay Pride" is a lilting number that humorously makes the point that being "gay" isn't just one thing. "Why I Share," is a moving statement about pouring your heart out to an electronic device when there are no people to listen to you. "Man Up" is Dash's quandary: does wanting to be a man mean acting like a man in the way popular culture conceives it? "Everything Changes," elaborates poignantly on its title, and "These Hands" is the background for one of the most vividly arousing sex scenes I have ever seen on stage. There are others, and not a clunker among them.
Eight terrific performers bring Interstate to life. The three leadsJudd as Dash, Van Dyne as Adrian, and Saha as Henryall impress with strong voices that pour feelings into the delivery of their songs, while having the acting chops to create whole and authentic characters, each with their own reason for drawing our support. If Saha seems to give the strongest of all the performances, it may be a function of Henry being such a sympathetic and deeply conceived character.
Five actors play multiple roles, switching parts with aplomb. Lily Tung Crystal is effective as Adrian's demanding, unsympathetic mother, and Brian Kim is delightful as Dash's kind, albeit naive, father. Zeniba Now makes a strong impression as Carly, Adrian's girlfriend and a total straight-shooter, pardon the expression. Tom Reed is excellent as wrong-minded Pastor Fred and Meredith Casey does well as Madison, a girl in school who comes closest to understanding Henry, and as a snarky record executive.
Jesca Prudencio moves Interstate with smooth transitions between the two main narrative strands and clear use of the cast to fill scenes by taking on varying roles. The show has some material that may be challenging for some audiences in its frankness, but Prudencio presents it as the natural, real lives of these very real characters, going a long way toward disarming those who may be squeamish so that they can pay attention to the important stories being told.
There is a modest amount of dancing, but what there is, is lively and enhances the power of the music, with choreography by Brian Bose (busy man, he also choreographed Thousand Things' just-opened Thunder Knocking on the Door, in which he also performs). The music sounds great, veering from tender moods to propulsive rock, with music director Raymond Berg heading up the offstage band. Justin Humphries designed the minimal set as well as the projections that provide an essential guide to the journey taken by our heroes on the road. Amber Brown's costumes, Paul Whitaker's lighting, and Scott Edwards's sound design all bring additional finesse to the production.
I walked into the theater not knowing what to expect and was summarily dazzled by Interstate. I would see it again in a heartbeat. Catch it now if you can. There is a good chance it will come back to town, but it may be a tougher ticket then, after the show draws the attention and larger audiences around the country that it deserves. As a new, thoughtfully conceived musical with something important to say, Interstate seems destined to have a long and successful road ahead.
Interstate runs through March 29, 2020, at at Mixed Blood Theatre, 1501 S. Fourth Street, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $35.00 in advance; $9.00 monthly membership for admission to all Mixed Blood productions; Radical Hospitality tickets: free, first come, first serve, starting two hours before each performance. For information and tickets go to https://mixedblood.com or call 612-338-6131.
Book: Melissa Li and Kit Yan; Music and Lyrics: Melissa Li; Poetry and Additional Lyrics: Kit Yan; Director: Jesca Prudencio; Musical Director: Raymond Berg; Scenic and Projection Design: Justin Humphries; Costume Design: Amber Brown; Lighting Design: Paul Whitaker; Sound Design: Scott Edwards; Properties: Genoveva Castañeda; Choreography: Brian Bose; Arrangements: Macy Schmidt: Intimacy Consultant: Sophie Peyton; Dramaturg: Natasha Sinha; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld; Assistant Director: Shannon TL Kearns; Stage Manager: Raúl Ramos; Assistant Stage Manager: Ty Waters; Producers: Jack Reuler and Catherine Campbell.
Cast: Meredith Casey (Madison/Noise #4/Jordan), Lily Tung Crystal (Mom/Noise #1/Emcee/ Teacher), Rose Van Dyne (Adrian), Kai Alexander Judd (Dash), Brian Kim (Dad/Noise #3/Kevin/Seth), Zeniba Now (Carly/Noise #5/Ashley), Tom Reed (Pastor Fred/Noise #2/Jason/Brett), Sushma Saha (Henry).