THE FORBIDDEN PHOENIX by Marty Chan and Robert Walsh, directed by Ron Jenkins (Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People/Citadel at Lorraine Kimsa, 165 Front East). To March 11, Saturday-Sunday 2 pm and other times. $15-$20. 416-862-2222, lktyp.ca. Rating: NNNN
The Forbidden Phoenix lives up to its mythical name and brings back to life an unhappy episode from Canadian history, that of Chinese labourers brought here to work on the railroad.
When Sun Wukong, the tricky Monkey King, angers the tyrannical Empress Dowager, he's forced to leave his son Laosan behind and head for the west. There he's hired by the unscrupulous railway builder Horne but soon transfers his loyalty to the Phoenix, whose daughter Horne keeps captive.
But a few words of summary don't do justice to director Ron Jenkins's exuberantly physical production, filled with song, dance and some mighty athletic performances. John Ullyatt's Sun Wukong (Richard Lee now plays the role) captures the role's trickster aspect along with a touch of commedia clown, but he gives it heart, too, and Shannon Kook-Chun's Laosan radiates a compassionate tenderness.
Lori Nancy Kalamanski's Phoenix moves fluidly and brings nobility to the magical title bird. Michael Dufays' Horne and Nadine Villasin's Empress Dowager offer different aspects of villainy: he's frenetically devious and eminently hissable in his black, gold and purple costume, while she, a towering and pearl-laden figure in pastels, handles her subjects with condescending manipulation.
You won't see a richer looking production on a Toronto stage, with Leslie Frankish's gorgeous costumes, a red-lacquer set and high-colour makeup drawn from Chinese theatre. There's even an iron dragon, suggestive of a Chinese New Year's celebration gone robotic.
The show's only misstep is Walsh's score, an intentional blend of eastern and western styles. In musician Peter Moller's live performance, the eastern sounds accentuate the story, but the pop-style western melodies are gratingly unsuccessful.