Imagination Stage’s The Ballad of Mu Lan is the funny and poignant tale of a Chinese woman warrior who defies tradition in order to protect her father and be the person she feels she was meant to be. Mu Lan’s story dates back to the sixth century and has been told in many forms over the years. In this adaptation, both written and directed by Alvin Chan, Mu Lan’s adventure is a musical in the style of Jingju (Beijing or Peking Opera).
This theater form is very different from western theaters and in choosing the style Chan adds a sense of authenticity and creates a more culturally rich experience. Jingju incorporates speech, song, dance, and combat, requiring conventional movements specific to individual characters and the use of percussion to accentuate certain actions or moments.
Composer and Music Director Matthew Mazzella plays percussion instruments on stage throughout the performance, providing many pings and gongs that the children in the audience thoroughly enjoy. The combination of the stylized music and choreography gives the show an almost animated feel that is highly engaging.
The show begins with an invasion by the Xi Xia King and his soldiers (Daniel Glenn Westbrook, Jordan D. Moral, and Andres Alejandro Ponce respectively), but China’s General Fei (Ryan Sellers) quickly realizes that their army is in desperate need of more men. He retreats from battle and rides to meet with the Emperor (Rafael Sebastian) to plead his case.
Despite the Emperor’s forward-thinking idea of allowing women to fight, General Fei and the Emperor’s Advisor (Daniel Glenn Westbrook) push for the order of one father or son from each family to be required to enlist and go into training to join the Chinese Army, singing “We Need More Men.”
Justine Moral plays Mu Lan, a nontraditional young woman with an affinity for strategy and adventure, and an elderly father (Jacob Yeh) who indulges his only child, against his better judgment. Upon hearing the news that her ailing father must fight for the army, Mu Lan decides to sneak out disguised as a man and take his place, as she sings about being “The Me, I was meant to Be.”
At the first training exercise, General Fei rates his new soldiers’ skills, dubbing Mu Lan (now called Huan Mulan) and two other less-than-skilled fighters, Jin Yong (Rafael Sebastian) and Xiu Qie (Jacob Yeh), Team Useless.
Moral plays on Mu Lan’s strength and determination. She is aware of her imperfections and is ready to put in the work to be a better fighter. Her attitude impresses her fellow trainees, ultimately forcing them to see the benefit of teaching each other and working as a team, and Team Useless quickly becomes a band of good soldiers and comrades.
While General Fei acknowledges Team Useless’s accomplishments, Mu Lan’s struggles are far from over. They must face the Xi Xia invaders and keep her identity a secret in fear of damaging her family name and facing punishment as a traitor.
The production is not all war and hardship, though. The Jingju style allows for many moments of humor, which the cast takes full advantage of to great effect. During the many acrobatic training sessions, the bumbling trio’s tussles and tumbles are highlighted by Mazzella’s onstage accompaniment.
And in another equally hilarious scene, Mu Lan is taking a bath at night. When her team comes to bathe as well, she hides for fear that they will see her. General Fei then joins in the public bathing and Mu Lan is doubly scared that her secret will be discovered.
Fortunately, the clouds have covered the moon and it becomes completely dark. Mu Lan stealthily works her way around the men, prompting them to suspect a spy and turn on each other, then ultimately tying the men’s towels together and entangling them while she is able to safely get away before the clouds reveal the moon again.
That scene, in particular, is a perfect example of the production’s playfulness and tongue-in-cheek somberness. The young audience was entirely riveted and giggling while absorbing valued pieces of Chinese history and culture. I call that a win-win for all involved.
With The Ballad of Mu Lan, Imagination Stage has created a wonderful family-friendly production that praises hard work, acceptance, compromise, and growth, with their central character portrayed as a force that will not accept defeat. Mu Lan represents all the impressive qualities of a female and a soldier, crushing gender stereotypes and challenging tradition. Her story is an important lesson for children still, if not especially, today.
The theater suggests the show for four and up, but the show can be an entertaining and teaching experience for any and all ages.
Running Time: One hour and 30 minutes, with one 10-minute intermission.
Note: The show was a Partnership Production with Honolulu Theatre for Youth.
Justine Moral (Mu Lan), Jacob Yeh (Xiu Qie / Huan Hu), Ryan Sellers (General Fei), Rafael Sebastian (Jin Yong / Emperor), Daniel Glenn Westbrook (Xi Xia King / Adviser), Jordan Moral (Soldier 1)
Andres Alejandro Ponce (Soldier 2), Matt Mazzella (Musician)
Alvin Chan (Director/Costume Designer), Matthew Mazzella (Music Director/Composer), Chesley Cannon (Video Designer), Joseph Dodd (Scenic and Prop Designer), Zachary Gilbert (Lighting Designer), Robert Pike (Sound Designer/Video Technician), Julia Singer (Stage Manager), Jeffrey Song (Musical Consultant)