Local playwright's musical premieres tonight at Altarena

Local playwright's musical premieres tonight at Altarena

Denise Shelton

"The Emperor of China is a Chinaman, as you most likely know, and everyone around him is a Chinaman too." So begins Hans Christian Andersen's story "The Nightingale," which serves as the inspiration for a new musical having its world premiere at Alameda's Altarena Playhouse tonight. The event is remarkable not only because it is an original musical by a local author, but it is one that boasts an entirely Asian-American cast.

"The Song of the Nightingale," with music, lyrics, and book by Alameda resident Min Kahng, expands upon the classic tale of how the Emperor of China learns the value of inner beauty and how this revelation ultimately benefits his people.

Broadening the roles of the characters in the original story, and adding characters and story elements all his own, Kahng has crafted a tale that goes beyond a simple fable to explore timely themes such as class warfare, conflicting values, career versus personal fulfillment, and female empowerment. But don't get the wrong idea: He does this with great humor, fun, and in a way that is accessible to young and old alike.

Kahng was first drawn to the story as a young child growing up in Danville. He says it especially resonated with him because, unlike Sleeping Beauty or Hansel and Gretl, everyone in the story was Asian like he was. His childhood self was also captivated by Disney's animated musical stories like "Beauty and the Beast." Growing up he dreamed of being a voice actor like Mel Blanc, a Disney animator, or even one of Disney's theme park Imagineers.

The son of restaurateurs, Kahng said, "I was never involved in community theater growing up. I didn't even know it existed." But he was always interested in self-expression through various art forms, singing in choirs, drawing pictures, and making up stories and skits.

As a student at the University at California, Berkeley, Kahng majored in music and rhetoric despite his father's suggestion that he major in business. It seems like this was an ideal combination for what has become his career path as a playwright and composer: It was in college that his talent began to emerge, while crafting musical skits for a student Christian group.

He eventually found his way into the Bay Area musical theater community as a performer, pianist, musical director, and stage director working for Pleasanton Playhouse (now Tri-Valley Repertory Theatre) and the Alameda Civic Light Opera, among others. It was in ACLO's final season's production of "Annie" that Kahng met Christina Lazo, who would eventually direct both the workshop and world premiere productions of "The Song of the Nightingale."

When asked if it was a conscious decision to cast only actors of Asian descent in the show, Lazo said the auditions were open to all, but so many Asian actors showed up and, being that the story is set in ancient China, it was a natural choice.

"We are lucky to be able to work with many of the same actors who did the original reading with us a few years ago," she said. "They know these characters inside and out, but we are still discovering new things!"

Kahng cited his early musical influences as Rogers and Hammerstein, who he notes were writing featured roles for Asian actors long before anybody else with shows like "South Pacific" and "Flower Drum Song." He's also a fan of Stephen Sondheim's saying, "I find intriguing what he's doing musically." He called Disney powerhouse Alan Menken "The king of melodies."

"He's able to come up with a melody that's going to grab you," Kahng said.

In person, Kahng seems ideally suited to the collaborative process. He's relaxed, open, and friendly, obviously very smart but with a steady confidence that never veers off into vanity or arrogance.

Actress Lindsay Hirata, who has been with the production since its first public workshop reading at the Fred L. Chacon Little Theater at Alameda High School in 2010, concurred. Hirata plays Mei Lin, a fish delivery girl whose relationship with the titular Nightingale leads to a social bump that bruises her attachment to love interest Xiao Hai (played by Sean Fenton).

"Min has really removed his ego from the process and has been completely open to feedback from the actors," Hirata said. "During rehearsals, I had been accidentally singing the wrong lyric for one of the songs in the show."

When she was corrected and went back to the original lyric, she said, "Min suggested that I keep my previous "mistake" because he felt it fit the song better."

Recently, Kahng's "Tales of Olympus: A Greek Myth Musical" completed a successful tour of area elementary schools with Bay Area Children's Theatre, a group for which he serves as marketing coordinator and youth education program instructor as well. In addition, Kahng works as a church pianist, voice teacher, and musical director for community theater productions.

Now in his early 30s, Khang is one of the up and coming talents in musical theater and was accepted into the very competitive Atlas Playwrights program at Theatre Bay Area. He is also hard at work on his next project, a musical adaptation of the Grace Lin novel, "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon," which is set to debut early next year.

"The Song of the Nightingale" runs today through Sunday, November 17 at the Altarena Playouse, 1409 High Street in Alameda. Shows are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $24 for adults and $21 for students and seniors, and are available online at http://www.altarena.org or by calling (510) 523-1553. The production is suitable for all ages.


Submitted by Denise Shelton on Fri, Oct 11, 2013

Fun fact that didn't fit in the article: Sean Fenton who plays the fisherman Xiao Hai was the original voice of "Franklin Bunwell" of the Alameda Theatre's Movie Treat Team. (Not to be confused with the actor voicing Franklin in the recycling segment--you know, the one whose English accent comes and goes--AKA "Fake Franklin" ;).)

Submitted by Michael Lee (not verified) on Fri, Oct 11, 2013

Did you know that the term "Chinaman" is a racial slur?

Submitted by Denise Shelton on Fri, Oct 11, 2013

Hans Christian Andersen was a Dane writing in the 1800s. This was not considered insulting at the time, any more than "Irishman" is considered insulting today. It would be dishonest to sanitize the original text and I did not find a translation that does not read this way. The point of including the quote is to underscore the fact that the story was placed in China without European characters and this production features all Asian-American actors (unlike many shows that feature Europeans made up to look Asian). Apparently Min Kahng was not offended but inspired by the story. I'm sorry you took offense, it was not intended, today or ever.