Sunday, September 23, 2018


TENOR BY NIGHT  by James Chiao

Businessman entrepreneur James Chiao, a successful Orange County Chinese immigrant, who with his wife, Lily and family has created what amounts to a store display dynasty providing  mannequins of every shape and size world wide. "Tenor by Night" is an autobiographical musical that charms.  Chiao's dream has been to follow in the footsteps of his parents, both musicians in China before the Cultural Revolution. He partially succeeds. To come from the life of a farmer / fisherman in rural China; develop a successful American business and then...  in his sixties, complete a Masters in Fine Arts at Cal Arts is a major accomplishment. For professionals with years of musical and theatrical training to write the book, compose the lyrics and the score to create a fully staged musical  and then opt to produce and helm the production with a full orchestra and a cast of more than twenty actors, singers and dancers and to succeed in actually mounting the show is, in a word: Incredible!

Chiao's autobiographical story, though somewhat convoluted; featuring bits of recognizable operas as well as his own musical compositions has its ups and downs.  

The logical progression of the passion that Chiao professes through his doppleganger character James (excellent tenor Kevin Gino) is recounted in the program. While on vacation with his family in Yosemite, Chiao stood on a big rock, singing an aria in full voice into the forest.  From down below a voice filtered up to him, "Don't quit your day job!"  An ensemble number "Keep Your Day Job" comes early in the show where Chiao's romance with music, art and dance are exemplified by a fireman who paints, a nurse who dances and others who extol the virtues of working to keep the wolf from the door, while finding time to  pursue the thing that truly makes their lives  worth living. I was especially impressed with the fireman's outfit that featured a huge paint brush emerging from his fire hose! The entire cast's theatrical skills, buoyed by conductor Charles Fernandez and a full orchestra are totally professional.  As James's wife, Lily, Lauren Han, exhibits a full vocal range. 

"Tenor" is, essentially, charming. Though over produced with excellent tech design by daughter Amy Chiao. In total the show is simply too long with some musical moments included that do not advance the  the plot.

At one point we travel back in time to experience the meeting of James and Lily in China with an overlong dance number that includes James accompanying dancing women in coolie hats, possibly in a rice paddy. He plays a traditional one string instrument, the erhu.. and then doubles on an accordion.  This introduces James and Lily to one another with Lily boldly announcing her family intentions and taking James by the hand.
Lauren Han and Kevin Gino  Photo credit: Ed Krieger

The story line becomes complicated  with the introduction of a Mephistopelean  visitor to the Chiao's home, Mike the Magician (Stefan Alexander Miller), who blatantly comes on to Lily. Through some Faustean 'magic' James is convinced to virtually abandon his family in favor of repairing to his warehouse full of mannequins who... thanks to Mike's "magic",  come to life to provide him with an appreciative audience! In an odd twist, Lily is magically transformed into a mystical mannequin: "Lady Yoga" played by the gorgeous Junru Wong who appears in other parts of the play as an amazing contortionist. 

If a native born westerner went to China,   studied the language faithfully,  graduated from university in any traditional Chinese art, including music and theatre; wrote, scored, produced and directed their own production, the translation would, by necessity, be influenced by the author's  Western roots.  Many of the lyrics of Chiao's musical numbers have the feeling of elementary translations.  The poetry does not scan well.

Should "Tenor" find legs and be mounted again, judicious cutting and an experienced director will improve it considerably. The unintentional camp aspects of this production (including "living" mannequins with plastic breasts and hunky Chippendales clones with shiny six packs) considering a satirical approach might hone Chiao's story to one with genuine humor and still retain his  fundamental message:  
Pursue the dream.  
With a nod to Joseph Campbell:  
Follow your bliss.

Written, produced and directed by James Chaio
El Portal Theater
5269 Lankershim Blvd. 
North Hollywood, CA 91601
Opened September 22, 2018
Runs Sunday, September 23 at 2PM and 7:30
Monday, September 24 at 7:30
Tuesday, September 25 at 7:30
Wednesday, September 26 at 7:30
Tickets and information:

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