From the minute the house lights dim and the actors run on stage, to its enchanting finale, “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” captivated a packed multigenerational audience attending a vacation week matinee.
Jeannine Coulombe’s two-hour, stage adaptation of Grace Lin’s 2010 Newbery Honor-winning novel based on Chinese folk tales, is winding up its New England premiere at Wheelock Family Theatre May 11, and it’s a must-see for all ages. The story-within-a-story, based in China, is a charming blend of myth and theater magic, laden with symbolism and subtle life lessons, delivered like a spoonful of sugar - in a most delightful way.
Although Lin grew up in New York state, her parents emigrated from Taiwan, imbuing her with East-West folk and fairy tales.
At times, the play boasts overtones of “The Wizard of Oz,” and other fanciful stories, along with Chinese legends that capture our imagination and inspire hope. Lin also mirrors her pride in her heritage, her creativity and skill as a fictional writer-illustrator of early readers and middle grade books.
The show opens a` la “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” with a narrator surrounded by children eager to hear his story and re-enact it. Their bubbly enthusiasm generates to the audience.
Jane Staab, Wheelock’s inimitable, longtime business manager-artistic director-director (who announced she’s retiring in June), has gathered a talented cast and crew. She also adds her voice, off-stage, portraying mystical advisers, Gold Fish and Silver Fish.
Craig A. Zemsky’s colorful background hues create brilliant saffron, sunshiny days, and indigo nights, orange warmth, and imposing, red skies, accompanied by Dewey Dellay’s resounding sounds and voices.
Designer Melissa Miller has created fanciful costumes, ranging from funky monkeys to contrasting Chinese royalty and humble villagers, and mystical dragons. Matthew T. Lazure’s simple, story-book set enables simultaneous action to occur in several places, including the Fruitful and Fruitless mountains, the other side of the mountain, Minli’s sparse village, royal gates, and more.
Although the cast list is 75 strong, (including young Winthropite, Heather Buccini, as a villager and narrator), there are three casts of monkeys and two casts of narrators and townsfolk, giving young thespians stage time, on separate days.
Lin’s tale focuses on young Minli, (Caroline Workman), a poor little girl who wants to help her parents find their fortune and improve their lives. Although Minli, her father, Ba, (Michael Tow) and Ma, (Grace Napier), work hard every day in the rice fields and return home, exhausted, to meager meals, Ba enriches Minli’s life by telling her fantasy-filled folk tales, especially the fable of the Jade Dragon and her four children who controlled the rain and elements, and formed the rivers around them.
But Ma would rather fill Minli’s stomach than her head with fairy tales.
Ba’s stories and a wise goldfish Minli bought from a vendor provide fodder for her trek to the omniscient Man in the Moon (Chip Phillips), where she seeks a solution. Along the way, she meets friendly, interesting, helpful individuals, including an orange Dragon who can’t fly; but she also encounters not-so-helpful creatures, like greedy monkeys.
The story continues with miracles and mishaps, danger and joy, where Lin ties up all loose ends and reunites the happy family and villagers.
Adobuere Ebiama portrays the powerful legendary Jade Dragon, who becomes angered with villagers when they complain about too much rain, so she stops raining for good, drying up their crops and rivers. Their thirst hits life-threatening, but Jade refuses to relent, so her kindly children sacrifice themselves, plunging to Earth and turning into water. In her grief, Jade throws herself to earth, turns into the muddy Jade River, and won’t restore herself until she reunites with one of her children. Ebiama also portrays two other roles, including Amah, kindly, loving mother of the happy family, including children A-Fu (Lexi Ryan) and Da-Fu (Arthur Wheelock-Wood. Actors portraying Jade Dragon’s children, Black (Jordan Clark), Pearl, (Elbert Joseph), Long Dragon (Alexander P. Roy), and Yellow Dragon (Kaitee Tredway) also portray other roles. Like Bill Mootos, in contrasting roles such as the cruel Magistrate Tiger, and his great-grandson, the kindly king, the characters are nicely camouflaged in Miller’s costumes.
Caroline Workman,14, of Cambridge, whose mother is Chinese, embraces her heritage and is charming as Minli. She loves being in the show, calling “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” one of her favorite books.
Stewart Evan Smith as the orange dragon who becomes Minli’s travel companion and best friend, evokes smiles and giggles from little ones. They cheer when Minli selflessly gleans from the Man of the Moon the solution to help him fly, and he jumps up and down, fluttering his “wings”.
Some secrets aren’t revealed, but the joy of coming home and reuniting with family speaks volumes.
BOX INFO: Jeannine Coulombe’s two-hour, two-act adaptation of Grace Lin’s award-winning novel, appearing through May 11, at Wheelock Family Theatre, 200 The Riverway, Boston. Performances:Fridays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays,Sundays, at 3 p.m.; relaxed performance, May 3, at 10 a.m. Tickets:$20-$35; group rates; Pajama Party Fridays, $15. Call 617-879-2300, visit firstname.lastname@example.org or www.WheelockFamilyTheatre.org.