Naughty naughty

Chee Chee

Book by Herbert Fields
Music by Richard Rodgers
Lyrics by Lorenz Hart
Directed by Thomas Mills
Musicals Tonight!
Mainstage at the 14th Street Y (362-5620)
344 East 14th St.
Equity showcase (closes Nov. 24)
Review by Arlene McKanic

No wonder the Rodgers and Hart musical sex comedy Chee Chee didn't last very long when it opened in 1928. The convoluted plot might raise eyebrows even now: Li-Li-Wee, daughter of The Grand Eunuch -- yes yes -- and First Servant of the libidinous Chinese Emperor, wants to celebrate her 16th birthday by becoming one of the Holy One’s concubines. Her father objects, not for the reason most fathers would object but because she’s too ugly for the honor. Since concubinage is a non-starter, Li-Li-Wee decides to run away with the Emperor’s son Tao Tee, even to the point of disguising herself as a boy so she can join him in a monastery. For his part the Grand Eunuch wants his own son, Li-Pi-Tchou, to follow in his footsteps. Li-Pi-Tchou, who’s happily married to the eponymous character, really does not wish to do this for some reason. He and Chee Chee also flee (and end up in the same monastery as Li-Li-Wee and her prince) and he’s only saved from all manner of horrible death by the, uh, charms of his loving wife. In the meantime there are choruses of falsettoing eunuchs, eager concubines, rowdy Tartars, and Konghouses, all linked together by tunes that are mostly only serviceable.

The large cast was directed briskly by Thomas Mills, with musical direction by James Stenborg. Most of the songs had a nice roaring 20’s bounciness to them and were as forgettable as last night’s bon bon, but another stand out was "I Must Love You," a duet sung by Chee and her husband. The musical accompaniment was a lone piano.

Stan Pearlman’s set designs and Perry Pizarro’s graphics were simple. The stage was empty save brightly painted posters at the back of the stage that let us know we’re in The Palace of the Holy Emperor, or on the road from Peking, or in the Monastery of the Celestial Clouds. Shih-hui Wu’s lighting was equally basic -- after all, this performance took place in the equivalent of a school auditorium. There was a general brightish light over everything, which narrowed to a spotlight during a big number like the rapturous "I Wake At Morning." The costumes, donated by the TDF Costume Collection, consisted mainly of embroidered jackets, though Doug Wynn’s prince looked scrumptious in a lavender-and-tangerine tunic with a bright orange sash embroidered in gold.

Herbert Fields’s book is campy and pokes fun at what’s seen as Oriental hyperbole and ridiculous protocol, with folks saying things like, "Where is my father, O scent of a hundred toads?" The cast members all had lovely and mellow singing voices, and Kati Kuroda’s Grand Eunuch hit those impossible high notes flawlessly. He was also wonderfully insufferable. Hazel Anne Raymundo was funny as the spoiled Li-Li-Wee, Wynn earnest as the Prince, Diane Veronica Phelan hilarious as the wide-eyed flibbertygibbet Chee Chee, and Steven Eng suitably put-upon as her lovestruck, wimpy husband. But Rose Bae as a scolding owl the couple find in the forest nearly stole the show with her droll contempt.

Of course, since this was a Rodgers and Hart musical sex comedy, all’s well that ends well. Chee Chee’s a sweet evening at the theater.

Box Score:

Book/Lyrics: 1:
Music: 2
Directing: 1
Performance: 2
Sets: 1
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2002 Arlene McKanic