Fringe review: A Perfect Bowl Of Pho serves up tasty home truths

A PERFECT BOWL OF PHO by Nam Nguyen (Send Noods Productions/Toronto Fringe Festival). At the Ada Slaight Hall (585 Dundas East). July 15 at 6:30 pm, July 17 at 1 pm. See listing. Rating: NNNN


After seeing A Perfect Bowl Of Pho, you won’t bite into a bánh mì or slurp a bowl of pho in the same way again.

Nguyen’s clever, tuneful and self-referential musical history of the Vietnamese diaspora has had many incarnations in the past several years, including a 2019 version for Fu-GEN Theatre that was part of a strong double bill. In my review of that earlier production, I called it “a fresh new musical that pulses with life, anarchic energy and invention.”

After watching this bigger and more polished Fringe version, I stand by my original assessment. I still have issues with its meandering structure – something Nguyen himself addresses indirectly in the actual show – and the indulgence of some of the writing, but it’s still an important and hugely enjoyable work. And the cast of mostly Asian actors is also across-the-board brilliant.

The meta-musical concerns Nam (Chris Vergara), who’s trying to write a musical about Vietnam through its foods. In a series of vignettes, he covers everything from a farmer in a rice paddy field to a Viet Cong-sympathizing restaurant server during the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive.

He’s at his most comfortable chronicling the contemporary Vietnamese diaspora, whether it’s depicting a young, bullied school girl (a fierce Maya Wong) excitedly rapping about her pride in her food or giving voice to his first date (Kryslyne-Mai Ancheta) singing about how she’s embarrassed to order a larger bowl of pho than Nguyen himself.

Wilfred Moeschter’s music and Nguyen’s lyrics are at their liveliest and most amusing here. Nguyen shows off his satiric side in a recreation of a short-lived social media blitz about a Philadelphia restaurant that claimed to have “discovered” pho. Director Steven Hao directs this scene, and others, with cheeky wit.

But there’s plenty of heart and soul to the show as well, such as in the concluding number about a young Vietnamese-Canadian woman’s longing for pho after living in Northern Ontario. And Nguyen’s account of the history of the Banh Mi Boys chain lands beautifully.

Some scenes don’t work for me – a section set in a resettlement camp in the Philippines drags on, and a song circle moment between three women feels unnecessary.

But Nguyen – both the writer and the character played marvellously by Vergara – is a gifted artist with a distinct comic voice. I can’t wait to see the next iteration of his show. I just hope he allows for a bit more dramaturgy next time.

Nam Nguyen is one of NOW’s 10 artists to watch at the Fringe. See full list here.

@glennsumi

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