THE GOOD DAUGHTER: Themes of filial piety have been enhanced for the new staging of Mulan the Musical in New York City (XUE LIANG)
The troupe chose to present the story of Mulan because of its classic nature and positive message, he added. Just as the Disney company was drawn to its strong female lead, the all-female Red Poppy Ladies were also drawn to the story.
The tale is presented in 14 scenes of synchronized drumming, kungfu and dance. Large screens provide plot summaries in English and animated scenes show the peaceful life of the village and the volley of arrows from Mulan's troupes. Du does an extraordinary job of embodying the heroine and conveying the emotions of leaving her family behind. The troupe uses traditional drums, tables, tubs, a fou (traditional wine cabinet) and even the floor in the high-energy performance. The style is somewhat like Stomp—the highly successful Western performance of fast-paced, non-traditional percussion.
"I loved it," said audience member Alice Lee, visiting with her family from Washington, D.C. "The lights, the drumming…it was great. It had many funny scenes and I liked how they engaged the audience."
During an early scene of a traditional Chinese wedding, one hapless audience member was dragged onstage, garbed in red robes and pushed to kowtow before the audience. He was a good sport about it, much to the audience's delight. The patrons enthusiastically hooted and hollered after each solo and scene, suitably impressed at the skill of the troupe.
Standout scenes were of Mulan's schooldays, featuring the impish, cross-eyed antics of troupe member Shen Qian. The battle scenes are also quite spectacular. The scene Marching in the Dark has almost no drumming at all, just a choreographed display of battery-powered torches on a dark stage.
"I really like the new scenes showing Mulan as a young girl," said Du. "They show her as an ordinary girl to better show her change into a warrior. The costumes before were very plain, but they have more color now and gold trim. These changes came directly from audience suggestions."
A survey is distributed to theatre-goers after the performance so that the troupe can continuously improve the show, said Zhou.
Red Poppy Ladies
Beijing's Red Poppy Ladies percussion group was founded in 2000 and has participated in over 3,000 performances around the world since then. Red Poppy first attracted its audience in 2001 in the CCTV Spring Festival Show, hosted by China's largest broadcasting station. In 2004, World Culture Open in South Korea honored Red Poppy with the World Peace Award. Red Poppy has performed in three Olympic Games, including the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening and closing ceremonies.
Mulan the Muscial is a family-friendly show, said Zhou, and children of all ages will respond to the tapping, drumming, thumping rhythms. It may even inspire them to take up drumming themselves, which has been shown to improve math skills and concentration.
"Once they start, they can't stop," Zhou said.
The crowd left Mulan the Musical in high spirits, drumming and tapping their way out the door. The show seems primed for a strong run at the Ellen Stewart Theater, and will surely be welcomed by New York audiences for future staging. Even in the oversaturated world of New York musicals, Mulan stands out for its all-female cast, phenomenal percussion and non-traditional staging.
The author is a contributing writer to Beijing Review, living in New York City
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