'Romance of the Western Chamber' west coast premiere opens in limited run at the Poway Center
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, January 7, 2023
I have a very strong association with the details at my Ama’s house: the calendar from the local market, the smell of hot pot bubbling nearby, a red candy dish with a rotating lid, and the sounds of Chinese operas emanating from the small TV tucked into an intricately carved TV cabinet. They are beautiful memories, so I was delighted to be transported back to those times when attending Romance of the Western Chamber, playing for two days only at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts.
A presentation of the San Diego State University School of Theatre, Television, and Film in collaboration with the university’s Chinese Cultural Center, this west coast premiere is a musical adaptation of the 13th century Chinese play Xi Xiang Ji. The show, which is being directed by Peter Janes Cirino and music directed by Lucy C. Lin, is done entirely in English with book and lyrics by Howard Rubenstein and music by Max Lee based on Chinese folk melodies.
Taking place during the T’ang Dynasty, Romance of the Western Chamber follows the story of two young lovers, Chang and Ying-Ying. When Ying-Ying, the daughter of the recently deceased prime minister (played by Lia Zheng), happens upon a scholar who has stopped to study at the local monastery en route to take his imperial examination (Chang, played by Jordan Fan), it is love at first sight. It seems to be ill fated, however; there is an existing engagement to the wealthy Lord Cheng-Heng (Flagg Guo) to contend with and Ying-Ying’s meddling mother Lady Tsui (Rebecca Ung) is resistant to making a match with a lowly poet. It takes a disaster of epic proportions, an act of intelligent heroism, and some well-timed intervention by Ying-Ying’s handmaiden Hong-Niang (Evelyn Olson) to turn the tides.
Romance of the Western Chamber has a very large cast: the two romantic leads, mother, handmaiden, and fiance appear alongside 35 other performers and dancers, and the scenes are interspersed with a variety of Chinese dances, ballet, and martial arts, all of which are impressively performed (choreographed by Patricia Lippert). Additional performers in this iteration include Dr. James Fan, Patrick Mayuyu, Andres Lagang, Dr. Dong Ji, Rhylen Miller, Emily Huang, Yicun Sim, Ivie Lim, Hugh Wang, Weilin Wang, ChinGhu Wang, Willis Li, Jack Meng, William Liang, Howard Lui, Denny ShiYuan Cheng, Chun Chun Chien, Yaysin Li, Haixin Li, Hai Hui Yu, Alex Zhang, Sara Zhou, Grace Wang, Patricia Lippert, Rebecca Chan, Shihong Ma, Ming Qiu, Yuan Shao, Lisa Su, Lisa Tao, Yan Wang, Virginia Wellington, Hailey Ye, Jenny Zhang, and Lily Zhang.
Interestingly, the director chooses to include English surtitles above the stage for the duration of the show. I understand, from the program notes, that when this production was first performed in Huangzhou, China, it was done in English and accompanied by Mandarin supertitles and, with this production in collaboration with the San Diego State University Chinese Cultural Center, I wondered if that might have also been an option here. Nevertheless, the surtitles are well timed to accompany the action on stage and are generally additive to the production, though there is an occasional dissonance between the words shown and those being sung or spoken.
The lighting throughout the production is striking and takes full advantage of the masking curtains and cyclorama. This lighting, created by Annelise Salazar, features not only an even wash across a very deep stage in a variety of colored LEDs, but also silhouette effects on scenic designer McKenna Perry’s large trellis sets.
Costume designs, as well, are visually lovely and extensive. Caroline Johnson, the designer, credits Overseas Community Affairs Council, Republic of China for some of the more elaborate elements (presumably including the stunning embroidered wedding apparel).
I found the sound design for this production particularly noteworthy, featuring effects such as a Buddhist brass striker bell, birds, rain, and other elements, alongside clean and well balanced microphone work. Both of these can be accredited to Javier Piñón, designer and live mixer. Well apportioned as well were some orchestration nuances, such as the use of woodblock, flute, and plucked string instruments; these are performed by a live orchestra (conducted by Dr. Angela Yeung), and contribute to some delightful sonic moments throughout the production.
From a vocal perspective, the execution of operatic soprano songs by actress Lia Zheng is flawless. Her voice is exquisite, particularly in her emotional and lonely lamentations. Jordan Fan also has a beautiful voice, which shines in “Sail to the Sun” in its multiple iterations. And, while some blocking and acting choices (as well as the heavily scripted initial exposition of the tale) feel obvious at times, these choices were aligned with some traditional elements of Chinese drama and the original source material and, therefore, feel fitting.
With all said and done, while this production itself has a short lifetime (closing after its Sunday, January 8 matinee performance), I’d wager that the experience of participating - both on stage and in the audience - will likely live on for many for some time to come; stepping into this cultural fable is a special and delicious experience.
Tickets to Romance of the Western Chamber are available online. The final performance takes place at the Poway Center for Performing Arts at 2pm on Sunday.