THE FAN TAN KING, a new musical
nytheatre.com review by Michael Bettencourt
August 22, 2006
At the end of the first performance of The Fan Tan King, a new musical by C.Y. Lee, the author of The Flower Drum Song, director and choreographer Tisa Chang announced that she had had only ten days to get the show ready. Given such a short rehearsal period, I was impressed by how well the cast and crew performed.
The Fan Tan King, set in San Francisco in 1888, chronicles the rise and redemption of Peter Fong, played with strong-jawed seriousness by Arthur Acuna. An emigrant from China, Fong has become a successful businessman who wants to make Chinatown a force to be reckoned with by the white society around him.
However, rival Sam Fat, portrayed by Ming Lee as a courteous viper, covets the string of fan tan (or gambling) parlors that provides Fong with a considerable source of his income and is willing to fight a pitched battle to gain control over Fong's empire. And on the eve of the Chinese New Year, the tong war begins. What happens during that war, and its effects, negative and positive, on both sides in the conflict, comprise the heart of Lee's story about Fong's ambition for security and respect.
Douglas Lackey and Gene Kauer's music mimics American dance hall rhythms, which is an understandable choice, given the time period of the play, and then inflects these rhythms with phrasings borrowed from Asian cultures. There are also several well-done ballads, such as the touching "Jewels," a love song sung between Fong and his wife Ching O, played by the lovely Sandia Ang.
Chang's choreography creates a sense of pageantry. Especially striking is the "Sword Solo" danced by a lithe Kevin Zhao.
At the end of that opening night performance, Chang introduced the audience to C.Y. Lee and Douglas Lackey, who had traveled to New York to see the premiere. In her remarks, she stated how excited they were by the prospect of moving forward with the piece. Lee, who turns 90 this year, may soon add another Broadway show to his credits.