“Mao: the Musical”: A Breath-Taking Score Sets Up a Story of Love, Loss, and Life’s Little Red Books
When deciding to write, compose, and direct an original musical, it is rare to choose one of the most murderous dictators of all time as the title character. Alan Rodi ’12, however, does exactly that in “Mao: The Musical,” a senior thesis performance produced by Second Stage last weekend in the ’92 Theater.
“Mao,” a one-act, opera-style “farce and tragedy” musical, takes place in China during the leader’s rise to power and chronicles three characters’ journeys from the birth of Mao Zedong through his reign as Chairman of the People’s Republic of China.
While this might sound like a recipe for caricatures and almost-racist jokes, Rodi instead chooses to line the play with what begins as tongue-in-cheek exaggerations about Zedong’s power and ends as hilariously bombastic descriptions of the miracles his Little Red Book will provide. Zedong, portrayed by Benjamin Tweed ’13, at one point declares that a man can fix his broken leg by “wrapping it in Little Red Books.”
Zedong’s rise to power serves as backdrop for the story, in which Mei (Gwen Rosen ’15) is caught in a love triangle between Long (Daniel Storfer ’15), a Red soldier and father of her child, and Zhao (Tong Satayopas ’15), a local farmer and Mei’s husband. The three actors beautifully portrayed the helplessness of the situation while the Party begins gaining steam in China.
Tweed’s bass voice fit the profile of Mao perfectly: powerful, crisp, and demanding attention. Perhaps the most impressive moment of the performance came when Tweed burst onto the stage through a brick wall, showering chorus members with rubble, dust, and Little Red Books. The wall he breaks down also reveals to the audience the orchestra, with conductor/writer Rodi, a dark silhouette against the bright red backdrop upstage at the helm.
The mastermind behind it all, Rodi combined his expertise in Chinese studies and theater with the small moments, such as when the chorus, proletariat members enamored with their Chairman, sets the beat on two consecutive numbers by simply repeating Mao’s name over and over again. Soon the name loses all meaning, a comment on the dictator’s public image.
As far as the set design, unceasing, brilliant red lights haunted the stage throughout the show, which lent an ominous tint to the show and indicated the restlessness of the Communist party at the time.
The whole production looked like a puppet show, with four different curtains framing the action. The puppet idea was continued on the faces of the actors, with their dazzling red, white, and black make-up for the principal characters. Rosen, in particular, looked like a flawlessly constructed porcelain doll.
However, while some pieces of the set were brilliant (the whole stage was covered in what looked like a bamboo floor), others were needless and frustrating. For example, the front of the proscenium stage was covered in what looked like three separate colored off-red sheets, upon which were pinned paper print-outs of cartoon panda bears.
But overall, the show’s backbone, without question, was the wonderfully poignant score. The music virtually didn’t stop for the whole of this forty-minute whirlwind, with Yvonne Lin ’13 on guzheng and Miram Smith-Drelich ’12 playing the flute.
On the other hand, the play’s greatest shortcoming, perhaps, was its length. It provided little opportunity for a fleshed-out plot, which left an unsatisfied feeling after curtain. Still, when a play’s biggest issue is that it leaves the audience wanting more, you know that there is a pretty wonderful performance in front of you.