"We're three Caucasians
with a fascination
of the new sensation
called the Chinese nation!"
So starts the irreverently funny and not-so-politically-correct new musical, China: The Whole Enchilada, one of the many productions showing at the New York International Fringe Festival, which features independent, avant-garde, and homegrown theatre, and runs through August 24th. Three white guys engage in an irreverent musical journey through 4,000 years of Chinese history. It goes without saying that I approached this show with great trepidation. This would be incredibly funny, or incredibly offensive, I thought to myself as I took my seat.
The musical, penned by Mark Brown and arranged by Paul Mirkovich, almost audaciously seeks to encompass the entire 4 millennia of Chinese history. Brown teeters on the edge of offense with his pun-filled and witty lyrics. In a style very reminiscent of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, Brown pokes fun at everything from the topsy-turvy and very bloody political history of early China ("Shang"), footbinding ("Lotus Shoes"), Genghis Khan ("Khan-Khan"), and even Tienanmen Square ("Gate of Heavenly Peace").
It's not all fun and games, for our Caucasian trio, comprised of Brad DePlanche (who plays the inadvertently racist dolt), Eric Hissom (who plays the politically correct China expert), and Philip Nolen (who plays the jingoistic war hawk, constantly cautioning of the impending Chinese world domination). Their ribald festivities are interrupted with a more somber discussion of several atrocities that occurred in Chinese history, including The Rape of Nanking, Mao's Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and the Opium War.
What I found most compelling was that while the major focus of the piece was on China and its history, it was frequently contextualized by China's relationship with the United States. In particular, Brown's redux of racism in the US Immigration policy and the frequent portrayals of the villainous Chinese in American popular culture ("Evil is a Yellow Face").
While the writing and song were, on the whole, enjoyable, the production suffered from several technical issues with the microphones so that often times the actors had to resort to shout-singing in order to be heard. In addition, the venue at the Pace University Auditorium seemed like an odd fit for the production, which I believe might have been better suited in a more intimate environment.
My major concern walking into the theatre was that a musical about China, written by and performed by exclusively white men would be unavoidably racist. However China... succeeds its goals of providing a comprehensive whirlwind of Chinese history, at the same time critically identifying the faults of both the Chinese and the West in our shared history. On the whole, I found China: The Whole Enchilada funny, smart, surprisingly deep, and very enjoyable.
Rating (out of 5): ***
For a sampling of Brown's music, check out the play's website and their myspace.
China: The Whole Enchilada is performed at the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts. Check out www.fringenyc.org for performance times.