Forbidden City West
nytheatre.com review by David Gordon
June 18, 2008
Forbidden City West is billed as "100 years of the Chinese-American experience through the life and times of the legendary entertainer, Jadin Wong." Wong, now 94 years of age, shot to fame as the exotic dancing star of the nightclub the Forbidden City; was featured, scantily clad, on the cover of Life magazine in 1940; married Broadway producer Eddie Dowling; and later became a preeminent talent agent who discovered Asian-American actors like Lucy Liu.
The play with music, written and directed by Joanna Chan (with pleasant incidental and dance arrangements by saxophonist Gregory Frederick), is entertaining much of the time, but ultimately is too long and too confusing at points to warrant a full recommendation.
Aside from the story of Jadin's rise to fame (which goes back and forth in time, starting with her jump off a military plane in the Black Forest during World War II and ending with her life as a talent agent in 1996), Chan also tries to relay a story about Jadin's mother, who read Little Women in her native China before being arranged to be married (the sequence is over in two scenes), and the experiences of a group of men who work in a Chinatown rice shop.
Much of Forbidden City West concerns Jadin's struggle to fit in as an American, despite having been both born and raised in the United States. When Eddie Dowling dies, Jadin tries to find work as a stand-up comic, only to be turned away because "only white people are funny." She explains that she is American and eventually storms off. Her gumption gets her the job.
Debbie Wong plays Jadin from her rise to fame as an exotic Asian dancer with chopsticks in her hair to her mid-50s, when she tries to become a comic. Wong looks very young throughout, especially compared to Richard Anthony's charismatic Eddie Dowling.
Wong's most satisfying moments are when she is dancing, and the highlight of the first act is the finale dance sequence. Her partner, featured dancer Ray Flores, provides a very strong tap routine prior to his ballroom dance with Jadin (choreography by David ChienHui Shen).
A subplot, set in 1996 New York, introduces Elder Jadin (Ji Liang Wang), then a talent agent and her young, screenplay-writing client, Eugene (Kyle Cheng). Eugene wants to write a show about hardships in China, but Elder Jadin spends the bulk of the plot trying to convince him that Americans don't want to see that—they want to see highly exaggerated martial arts plots, as typified by David Carradine in Kung Fu.
The scenes between Wang and Cheng are the most compelling, and the payoff, a nearly 15-minute martial arts sequence at the very end, is as satisfying as it is entertaining. Also compelling and satisfying is the relationship between Wang's Jadin and Carl Hsu as her brother, Wally. Close to one another for their entire lives, we learn at the very end, he's moved across the street from her. This relationship is the most developed one in Chan's script, and Hsu provides solid support for both Debbie Wong and Ji Liang Wang.
Chan's overly ambitious script and direction ultimately proves problematic though. There's just too much going on and not enough of a focus for the production to be successful the entire time. I would have preferred more of the 1996 storyline, with Hsu, Wang, and Cheng, as I found their story to be the most interesting one. However, for those audience members familiar with the work of Jadin Wong, the show might prove to be a worthwhile watch.