East meets West in Imagination Stage’s production of “The Ballad of Mu Lan,” which tells the ancient Chinese story in the form of a stylized Beijing opera with Western orchestrations.
Director Alvin Chan created the show – consisting of music, pageantry, martial arts, acrobatics and humor — to introduce families to Chinese culture and tradition. He also designed the costumes and worked on the songs with composer Matthew Mazzella, the show’s music director and onstage musician. “It’s a very appealing show for the senses. There’s something for everybody,” Chan said.
For his Mu Lan story, Chan’s sources were fifth- and sixth-century Chinese poems and adaptations. That means, there are no talking dragons or love interests — just the story of a loving daughter who pretends to be a man to protect her family and country.
“People should know this isn’t Disney. (Instead) it’s a total retelling of the story,” Mazzella said. “It focuses more on Mu Lan and her journey. Her journey is more about finding herself and who she needs to be, with the support of her father.”
Chan, who studied theater in China, is currently working on a master of fine arts degree at Northwestern University. “He has learned so much, he’s able to teach everybody,” Mazzella observed.
At the start of the play, the shorthanded army orders each household to send one male to serve. Because her father is unwell and her brothers either too young or unskilled, Mulan represents her family.
Mulan makes friends in the army: one, a bully who is overcompensating for his feelings of inadequacy and another who is timid and unsure of himself. She figures out how to lead them and bring out each one’s strength, and rises to the rank of general.
The show demonstrates how all the soldiers — young and old, skilled and unskilled — learn to succeed by believe in themselves and supporting each other. “There’s a character for every kid to connect with,” Chan said.
Mu Lan doesn’t need a love interest to be successful, Chan said. “I wanted the story to really be about Mu Lan and her adventures.” This version of the story reflects our times and allows us to look at ourselves and our own gender biases, he added.
“The Ballad of Mu Lan” set design by Joseph D. Dodd.
Photo credit: Margot Schulman
Beijing opera involves stylized, somewhat stiff and exaggerated, movement. Once the actors learned the basics, they found ways to let their individuality emerge, said Jacob Yeh, who plays Mu Lan’s father Huan Hu and the warrior Xiu Qi. “Everything is meant to be larger than life,” he observed. “Children’s theater is more stylized … That’s why it works for this piece.”
Yeh, 43, who grew up in Montgomery County, changed careers when he was unhappy working long hours as a computer programmer and longed for the feelings of gratification he had derived from acting in student productions during college. He took acting classes at Northern Virginia University and the Theater Lab.
Chan wrote and staged “Anime Momotaro” and an earlier version of “Mu Lan” for the Honolulu Theatre for Youth, which has a partnership with Imagination Stage. Yeh and Chan last collaborated six years ago on Imagination Stage’s “Anime Momotaro.” “This ‘Mu Lan’ is longer and has more characters, fights and songs,” Chan said. “The show is deeper and more complex.”
Before the show begins, the audience is instructed to yell “hǎo” (which means ‘good’ in Chinese) when they like something; beyond audience participation, the shouts also serves to accent each song. In addition, Mazzella plays wood blocks, cymbals or a gong to highlight every change of mood and scene. “Percussion as punctuation, accenting, filling the beats,” he said.
Germantown native Justine “Icy” Moral, 28, who plays the title role, appreciates hearing the audience’s enthusiasm. “Kids are a very honest audience,” she said. “They react more vocally and process emotions as well.”
The show taps into her dance background and martial arts training. “I’m very excited to be able to share this beautiful and unique piece with the audience,” Moral said. “It’s a show that will attract boys and girls.”
Moral has been acting since age 11, when she and her brother Jordan, then 7, joined the national touring company of “South Pacific.” Jordan is in the Mulan cast, too, as a villager and a soldier.
Imagination Stage’s Founding Director Janet Stanford has wanted to do a “Mu Lan” like this for a long time, said spokesman Jessica Pettit. “This partnership (with the Honolulu Theatre for Youth) let us tap into Alvin and his team, who are experts in both theater for young audiences and Beijing Opera — a rare combination of skills.”
“The Ballad of Mu Lan” runs through Aug. 11 at Imagination Stage’s Annette M. and Theodore N. Lerner Family Theatre, 4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda. Shows start at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1:30 and 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, ranging from $15 to $35, visit www.imaginationstage.org or call 301-280-1660.