Dania turned the CD over, reading the track list on the back. There had been so many catchy moments in the show, and she was debating how well she wanted to remember them.
“Should I buy a CD?” she asked Eleanor, standing nearby with her nose in a season brochure.
“I mean, sure?” Eleanor barely looked up. “It’s your money.”
“Well, it’s going to a good cause,” Dania argued. She walked off to find a staff member.
“Do you think they own the rights to the script?” Gwen asked. She checked the program: playwright Alvin Chan had multiple commissions from Honolulu Theatre for Youth in the past, but his bio implied that his work had received second productions elsewhere.
“Are you thinking of bringing it to Chicago?” asked Eleanor.
“Probably not,” Gwen said. “I’m not sure it’s what Chicago Children’s Theatre would be interested in. But there’s gotta be a company on the mainland who would love this.”
“I know of one person from the mainland who loved it,” Eleanor said, before jutting a thumb into her chest.
Gwen chuckled. “It’s a cute show. The audience was real responsive to it.”
“The woman on my right was completely stoked about the ending,” Eleanor said. “Kongji is like, ‘Maybe once we get to know each other, then we can get married, but I have to have my own life first.’ And the mom was like, ‘yeeeeees!'”
“I appreciated the small changes made to the story to modernize it,” Gwen said. “Obviously that one, making Kongji more self-sufficient. But little elements, too, like the masked ball being a means to find a date, not a wife, like the western version of Cinderella.”
“I chalked that up more to it being for children,” Eleanor countered. “Like, these kids won’t be getting married soon, better to center on the idea of a date than a wedding.”
“Perhaps,” Gwen said. “I loved the animal scenes. Even if each one worked with its own theatrical rules. I felt like I had to keep redefining how the universe of the play worked.”
“Eh, it’s wide enough to include everything,” Eleanor said. “The ox was my favorite. Walking up and down the aisle, bouncing all around.”
“I enjoyed the turtle the most,” said Gwen. “Always up for a little puppetry on stage.”
“Oh, yeah, the turtle was nice,” Eleanor agreed. “Although the birds were also puppets, right? All of the animals were puppets of some sort.”
“You’re not wrong,” Gwen said. “If you define them as such. That’s what I mean when I say the animals all use different theatrical language. The turtle plugging the hole in the bucket is done literally –– the actress sticks a turtle hand puppet in the bucket. But the ox plowing the field is less literal, it’s two actors walking up and down the aisle and the characters act like something happened.”
“The birds are a drum circle,” Eleanor added. “I mean, the bird puppets are literally bachi sticks, they use them to play on the drums.”
“And that’s another change in the language,” Gwen said. “Representing the birds working by drumming with them.”
“I think most of the audience still understood what was going on.”
“Sure,” Gwen agreed. “The theatricality of the performance is so heightened, it allows for any conventions to be included. No one is going to complain about how the stage language is inconsistent in a TYA production.”
“Well, except you, just now.”
But Dania returned, CD in hand, before Gwen could continue.
“Are we ready to walk?” she asked.
“Sure,” Gwen grumbled.
As they walked away from the church where Honolulu Theatre for Youth performed, there was silence between the trio. Dania could tell by looking at Gwen and Eleanor’s faces –– squinting in the sunlight, but focused –– that they were parsing their own thoughts on the musical.
Dania, as she watched, grew more attached to the show as it went along. Gwen had insisted they attend the production during their trip –– that it was Theatre for Young Audiences was incidental. “Theatre for young audiences is theatre for all audiences,” she often claimed.
Dania found it to be true, for the most part. The script shared the call-and-response format of children’s media, with dialogue directed towards the audience –– mostly the four rows of benches immediately in front of the stage, reserved for younger viewers (although, Dania noticed, more than a few parents had snuck onto the benches, to hold their children still and obstruct the views of everyone else’s). The journey of Kongji –– the titular housemaid, played with open-eyed bewilderment by Kristy-Li Strand –– went through the basic motions of the Cinderella myth, pushed through the filter of K-pop hyperactivity. The other three actors, playing every other role, swung wildly from the subdued duty of the Mayor’s attendant, up to the giddy heights of Patji, Kongji’s evil stepsibling.
“I was worried immediately by the audience reaction to the evil stepsister appearing for the first time,” Gwen eventually began.
“Right?” Eleanor said. “Laughing at a man in drag, it’s such an antiquated punchline.”
“I chalked that laugh up to the audience, eventually,” added Gwen. “The show itself never mined that for comedy. Patji is an inherently ridiculous character, regardless of who plays her.”
“I suppose,” said Eleanor. “It’s not like that track needed to be a male actor in any other part of the show…but I guess that works both ways, with an actress playing some of the male roles.”
“Gender’s always open in youth theatre,” Gwen said. “Once people acclimated to the gender of the roles not always matching the gender of the performer, people got over it and focused on the music instead.”
“Which was excellent!” Dania chimed. “So much child-friendly K-pop. I only wish it was a little bit louder, so you could really feel the beat. When you’re at a concert, part of the experience is feeling the bass shake the walls, getting lost in the sound. Maybe because it was for kids…probably because of that, it felt a little too quiet.”
“Yeah, that’s probably the kids,” Eleanor said. “I’m unsure about my thoughts on the show, overall. I enjoyed it, but in the same way I enjoyed watching, like, Dora The Explorer with my cousins. It’s not that complex, but it at least succeeds in what it sets out to do?”
“I won’t go as far as Dora for comparison,” Gwen said. “Dora is tightly written, as kids media goes. Aside from the pauses for kids to respond, there’s no dead weight. I felt like parts of Korean Cinderella were loose. Sometimes I thought it was running too fast, but then it would slow down so much it took me out of the show.”
“The entire ball scene feels like an afterthought to me,” Gwen said. “Or, masked dance…or ball –– did you get tripped up by that?”
“Yeah, there were definitely two layers of whatever Cinderella was going out for, I was confused.”
“There was going to be a Mask Festival next week,” Eleanor clarified. “So, in order to determine which woman the Mayor –– instead of prince, it’s a mayor. To determine who his date to that Mask Festival would be, the Mayor organizes a Masked Dance Competition. That’s the ball. The Mask Festival is the analogue for…the wedding, I guess? We never see it happen.”
“That feels confusing,” Dania said. “Why not make the second thing something not involving masks? For clarity’s sake.”
“Whatever it was, the preceding ball scene felt fast,” Gwen said. “If the Mayor is trying to determine how good a dancer Kongji is, they barely have enough time to share half a scene together before the chimes at midnight go off.”
“I mean, it’s more dialogue than the Prince and Cinderella share in the Disney version,” Dania recalled.
“That’s barely a standard,” chided Gwen. “They share no dialogue at all.”
“I feel that pacing issues might be something we accept due to the medium,” Eleanor said. “If you’re going to fit the Cinderella myth into 60 minutes, you’re going to cut corners somewhere.”
“Do you, though?” Gwen wondered. “I felt like the show was all filler –– fun filler, mind. Engaging, worthwhile filler. It’s emblematic of the genre, but I don’t know if they get a pass on it.”
“The songs might also apply there,” Dania argued. “Not that I didn’t love them, I will be burning this CD to my laptop. But were any of them entirely necessary?”
“Perhaps…” Eleanor considered. Much of the show’s most memorable moments were accompanied by music, from the arrival of Kongji’s father, as a sprightly ghost, to the long journey of the Ox –– the latter scored with a single drum, played virtuosically by cast member Maki’ilei Ishihara.
“I’d argue that there was a purpose for music, generally,” said Eleanor. “Maybe not for each song. But the sonic experience of the show feels significant. It’s supposed to be part K-pop concert.”
“That’s a fair consideration,” Gwen said. “We’re operating on two levels of theatricality here: TYA and K-pop. Both deeply rely on audience relationship, and despite anything going on in the plot of the show, they did achieve a connection. I felt that.”
“If you’re a child, and you come to the play, what are you taking away from the experience?” asked Eleanor. “The plot? It’s Cinderella. Some Korean cultural knowledge? Maybe, although some of them already know. But the K-pop experience –– alongside the lighting and sound, which did a lot with few resources –– that’s the element you can’t replicate somewhere else.”
“I mean, that’s live theatre, right?” Dania said. “Being in the room?”
“So on a basic level, the show was a success,” Eleanor finished. “Anything beyond that is icing on the cake.”
“Ending the show with a PSA about disaster safety is pretty excellent icing, though, I have to say,” Dania grinned.
“Eh, the original Broadway production of Hairspray ended with a PSA, too,” Gwen shrugged. “You could justify it as educational.”
“Education alongside entertainment and some fun filler comedy,” Eleanor summed up. “What’s not to love?”
Image Credit: (l to r) Maki’ilei Ishihara, Kristy-Li Strand, Sean Joseph-Choo, & Junior Tesoro / Photo: Brad Goda