nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
November 14, 2011
As part of its 35th season, Pan Asian Repertory Theatre has brought back its 1997 feel-good musical Shanghai Lil’s. Set in San Francisco in the 1940s, it tells the story of widowed Chinese restaurant owner Lil (Broadway veteran Christine Toy Johnson), and her busboy, Chase (Whitney Kam Lee), who dreams of being an American-style performer in an age where Asians had not yet broken in to show business. Just when Lil and Chase are thinking of having weekly Chinatown talent nights at the restaurant, a talented but restless lady named Mei-Mei (Jaygee Macapugay) arrives and helps make it all a reality. Chase and Mei-Mei become dance partners and are falling in love when, right in the middle of a benefit show at the new “Shanghai Lil’s”, the news comes of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Talent nights also boast the local version of the Andrew Sisters, The Flower Sisters—Sara (Leanne Cabrera), Hyacinth (Rebecca Lee Lerman), and Peony (Lisa Villamaria)—and Groucho Marx aficionado Jerry (Timothy Ng). The Flower Sisters become the emotional chorus as Jerry is killed in battle; Sara—who is of Japanese descent—hides at Mei-Mei’s place to avoid internment; and Chase comes back from the war with a bad foot and perhaps a little shell-shocked. But just because all the men of America took off to fight the war, does that mean Mei-Mei will get restless and become the one that got away?
Playwright Lila Kan and composer Louis Stewart have definitely recreated the era and the feeling of being American. All the favorite '40s flourishes are here: tango, swing, conga lines, admonitions to buy war bonds, wide-eyed enthusiasm, and exotica of the sincerest kind. Director Tisa Chang imbues all the characters with happiness, hope and fellowship, and gives the story an excitement that makes the show fly by. Susan Ancheta’s choreography is top-notch, and Kate Mincer’s costumes beautifully cover the emotional range from slumber party to Carmen Miranda. Gian Marco Lo Forte’s set perfectly turns the gorgeous tower theater at the Church of St. Paul & St Andrew into a flashy Chinese restaurant. The orchestra consists of Sarah Brett-England on piano and Shoshana Seid-Green on synthesizer. The music is inspiring, although sometimes I wished I could be listening to real trumpets and a big band.