TARGET AUDIENCE: A dramatic scene from the 2014 off-Broadway production of Mulan the Musical, staged by the Red Poppy Ladies troupe (XUE LIANG)
As a growing gallop of drums heralded a charge into battle, the stage at the Ellen Stewart Theater in New York's East Village began to shake. Flashes of strobe lights lit up the audience, a fog of dry ice wafted in and 13 warrior maidens released a volley of deadly arrows onto the threatening hordes of Huns. Standing tall against the gloom was a mighty figure in red. Mulan was here to save the day, fixed in purpose and steadfast.
Mulan the Musical has returned to New York for a three-month run after a year's absence to revamp costumes, add theatrical elements and install additional scenes. The 13-member, all-female troupe the Red Poppy Ladies is led by the thrilling Du Qianqian in the role of Mulan. All the members are experts at playing the tanggu—a traditional Chinese drum played with two sticks—as well as other percussive instruments. Du, age 20, has been playing the tanggu since age 13.
"Western audiences can easily understand percussion," Du said, "but we didn't imagine how well the audience would receive the performance. They are very excited."
Mulan the Muscial follows the classic Chinese folktale of a young maiden who disguises herself as a boy to go to war. The Red Poppy Ladies focus on the heroine's ideal childhood, laughing and playing through chores and school. Her peaceful life ends when the kingdom declares war and one man from each household is ordered into conscription. Having no sons, Mulan's aging father is told to enlist, prompting Mulan's gender-bending subterfuge to take her father's place in the emperor's army.
If the plot sounds familiar to Western audiences, it is because it is the same story made famous by the 1998 Academy Award-winning Disney animation of the same name. The tale has widespread appeal for its themes of filial piety, honor, strength and feminism. While some call Mulan the Joan of Arc of the East, the ending to the tale is much nicer with Mulan being rewarded for her military prowess rather than burned at the stake. The warrior princess is forced to reveal her true identity after winning the final battle when the emperor awards her a lovely bride.
Despite her subterfuge, Mulan becomes a national hero for leading the troops to victory. Some 1,600 years later, she is still inspiring young girls to be bold and brave.
The Beijing-based Red Poppy Ladies debuted Mulan the Musical to New York audiences in late 2012 on Broadway. Though well received, the show was reworked to add more theatrical elements and scenes of Mulan's idyllic childhood. The aim, said director Zhou Li, was to show Mulan as a pretty, young maiden in contrast to the strong warrior she becomes.
"After a year of preparation, we're thrilled to be bringing Mulan the Musical back to life and back to New York City," said Zhou. "Even though the legendary story is ancient, it remains relevant today. Its message of bravery, leadership, loyalty and the importance of family is universal."