The Dragon King’s Daughter, a fun fest of sophisticated storytelling, is set in New York, slips over to several provinces in a mythical world based on China, and even drops into a fantastical dimension where dragons can fly. What starts out with an adolescent reluctant to go to school covers a world of issues from school bullying to strengthening self-confidence to dealing with parental loss and staying on your quest. Add a family that can switch to their dragon form and fly through the clouds, a talented cast, great designers, and popping fresh music and you’ve got a crowd-pleaser, perfect for the holidays.
When Kenny Li (a winsome Jonny Lee Jr.) tries desperately to stay under the covers with mounds of excuses to keep from going to school, he finally gets ready to keep from worrying his caring neighbor and assures her with his opening song, “I’m Fine, I’m Fine!” We soon find out he’s terrorized at school by bullies who snatch his book bag, demand money, and even stuff him in a dumpster. It’s at his lowest point that Kenny finds a tablet that inadvertently transports him via a portal to another dimension, the Jade Kingdom.
Suddenly, we’re whisked to the Kingdom of the Dragon King and watch the daughter Xing strive to save mankind. She totally defies her father’s aim to destroy humans because of the mayhem and destruction he has witnessed, including his own wife being sucked into a portal years ago while trying to save humanity. Xing, a wonderous Michelle Cabinian, insists that not all humans are treacherous and she is determined to find the missing glass fragments that when combined unleash enormous powers to save mankind. In pops Kenny Li, who convinces her that they’d make a great team to find the pieces. Xing reluctantly allows him to join her and discovers that instead of being a “wimpy kid,” Kenny has powers that unexpectedly emerge. Together Xing and Kenny Li are able to solve an impossible riddle, evade voracious creatures, and escape danger as they crisscross the country seeking the missing pieces.
Kenny marvels at Xing’s martial arts (what she does with a pack of cute but menacing pandas is a hoot). But her first lesson in coaching him is that fighting isn’t the way to get through tough situations. She then shares that the best move, surprisingly, is to RUN! The next best is to evade — an opponent can’t hit what isn’t there — a lesson Kenny practices and takes to heart when he finally gets back to his life in Chinatown. Thanks to the Dragon King’s Daughter, Kenny also discovers his own powers of quick thinking and persuasion and the impact of taking an image on this phone. Even his TikTok moves help save the day, literally.
The performers are all top-notch. Eymard Cabling is the majestic Dragon King raising his daughter the best that he can while filled with rage and hurt when his wife tumbles through the portal. Leo Yu-Ning Chang, Sally Imbriano, and Quynh-My-Luu are energetic foils for the characters to move along the quest.
Spectacular projections by Patrick Lord combined with terrific lighting by Venus Gulbranson created distinct locales in Jade Kingdom as Xing searches for the missing pieces. The duo traveled to one province of lush greenery while another was blustery cold and icy with snowcapped mountains in the background, and a third is an urban setting reflecting the country’s expansive geographical range.
Gorgeous costumes by Yuanyuan Liang shimmered with gold trim and flowed with regal majesty for the King, and another character was gorgeously attired in deep royal blue, while full-bodied sea urchins scampered about the ocean scenes with claws and antennas. Billy Bustamante’s choreography uses circular movement inspired by Tai Chi and Chinese opera. The scenic design by You-Shin Chen includes an archway for characters to traverse along the sides, projections to appear inside, and dragon projections that curve along in flight with stunning versatility.
Songs reinforce the messages beautifully, as seen in “I’m Fine!” which rebounds at the end as an affirmation — “I’m Really Fine!” Another key refrain, “You are stronger than you know, and braver than you feel,” captures the sentiment that anchors the show.
Director Chongren Fan has noted that the story reflects some of his own experiences in immigrating to a new land and stresses that “…we are not alone. We meet friends in school and at work. We might have differences, but we always find a way to come together.” This world-premiere production at the Kennedy Center is a tribute to friendship and cultural heritage and is not to be missed.
Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission
The Dragon King’s Daughter plays through December 17, 2023 (Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 pm & 4:00 pm, with special times on December 2), in the Family Theater at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($20–$25) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.
The program for The Dragon King’s Daughter is online here.
Most enjoyed by ages 7+. There is an extensive learning guide for The Dragon King’s Daughter here.
COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Kennedy Center spaces for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. See Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan here.
The Dragon King’s Daughter
Story, Lyrics, and Music by Marcus Yi
Directed by Chongren Fan
Choreography by Billy Bustamante
Music Direction by Tiffany Underwood Holmes
Fight Choreography by Ryan Sellers
The Dragon King’s Daughter is a world premiere Kennedy Center Commission, developed as part of New Victory LabWorks at The New Victory Theater, powered by New 42.
Michelle Cabinian (Xing)
Eymard Cabling (Dragon King/Ensemble)
Leo Yu-Ning Chang (Mao Han Ba/Ensemble)
Sally Imbriano (Auntie Qin/Ensemble)
Jonny Lee Jr. (Kenny Li)
Quynh-My-Luu (Fox Spirit/Ensemble)
Assistant Director: Gregory Keng Strasser
Scenic Designer: You-Shin Chen
Sound Designer: Ian Vespermann
Lighting Designer: Venus Gulbranson
Costume Designer: Yuanyuan Liang
Projections Design: Frank Lord
Production Stage Manager: Hope Villanueva
Asst. Stage Manager: Maria Mills