VICTOR WOO: THE AVERAGE ASIAN AMERICAN
nytheatre.com review by Nancy Kim
August 18, 2007
Kevin So. Remember this name the next time you happen to find yourself in need of something to Google or the next time you're browsing MySpace. He is hugely talented. And in the new musical, Victor Woo: The Average Asian American, nearly 30 of his songs showcase his stunning range from pop to R&B, hip-hop to rock, and some folk flavor to a smattering of Latin. Though the story treads familiar territory, So's deft skills, the stellar cast, and a full band deliver a far above average Fringe experience.
What started out originally as singer/songwriter Kevin So's "concept album" has been reshaped into a semi-autobiographical musical. Through his playful, narrative-driven lyrics, we learn that Victor Woo daydreams about becoming a basketball star, Hollywood star, or a rock star while growing up in Boston in 1982. But his Chinese father won't let up on pressuring him to go to Harvard to become a future lawyer or doctor, while his mother would prefer that he takes over the family restaurant. Meanwhile, the school kids only recognize what they see in front of them: a scrawny, pimply-backed Asian kid.
Victor yearns to break away from these expectations, and for him, being normal is to set off to New York City to become a musician right after high school. However, he soon trades one set of expectations for another: he finds that hustling for paying audience gets you gigs a lot faster than actually having any talent. And although his father warns that "...they don't want to see a Chinese rock star," Victor has an uncomfortable meeting with music executives who are more interested in exploiting his ethnic background than they are in his music. When Victor returns home as a struggling musician, the consequences of his choices feel more painful.
As the title character, Raymond J. Lee is great and makes us interested in his journey. He has a wonderfully warm and rich voice, particularly well-fitted for many of his R&B songs and versatile for numbers such as "Long Train Ride" with its rock drive. As Victor's parents, Francis Jue and Christine Toy Johnson are remarkable. Although they play archetypal characters of immigrant parents, it is a testament to So's generous songwriting as well as the actors' performances that they realize fully-dimensional people. In the tender ballad "If It Were Up To Me," Johnson reveals an unexpectedly loving moment this woman has for her husband. And the journey of the father is a poignant parallel to Victor's journey, and Jue is perfectly superb in this role with his hopeful, tough, and struggling Stanley.
Also, giving strong performances are actors McKinley Belcher III and Nedra McClyde as the MC and Woman MC who serve as the musical's narrators. McClyde's soulful "Not Alone" drives home universal themes of not fitting in and being an outsider. They sing beautifully in quite a few numbers, and it is unfortunate that in Act II they seem underutilized.
Kevin Merritt deserves much credit for the direction as well as co-conceiving the musical with So. While they shape a strong story around the foundation of his songs, there are some elements in the book that do feel underdeveloped. The storyline with the love interest doesn't seem to have a conclusion; a character is introduced, never to be seen again; and although they are gems, perhaps a few of the songs could be cut as they are not essential in facilitating the story forward.
Ultimately, Victor Woo succeeds because the music is a standout, brimming with heart and feeling (with special kudos to the music supervisor Ethan Popp and the full band including brass and percussion—a treat for a FringeNYC show). Kevin So reminds us that these familiar stories are worth listening to.