“A pleasant, informative escape into a stylish world with an intriguing guide.”
“You know I’m dead?” begins Michelle Yim, as she finishes her opening number. This new one-woman show from Grist to the Mill Productions continues in this vein of playful, entertaining documentary-theatre with a light touch and a pleasant appreciation for Old Hollywood charm. And there is plenty of this charm in this show: a tribute to and revitalisation of the story of Anna May Wong, Hollywood’s first (and essentially only) Chinese-American actress of the silent era. The show is calm and straightforward, with dashes of the glamorous here and there and a sweet sense of humour, which provides a pleasant, informative escape into a stylish world with an intriguing guide.
Yim plays Wong with talent, vivacity, and an exceedingly agreeable lightness, which is at times somewhat repetitive, but with a story this unique it does not really detract. The narrative, scripted by Ross Ericson, is interesting, but not quite enthralling, although the marriage of visuals and clips that augment the history on a slideshow in the background is a very good choice. The moments when Yim refers to a film or a play Wong performed in are much more gripping when there is a visual of the piece in question, and in the moments where there is none, it feels a bit distant and undercooked as a presentation.
However, for the most part, the narrative features some thought-provoking questions about race and success in America, such as whether a star like Wong let herself be distanced from her culture, or intentionally decided to craft her life her own way. The best moments of this show come when these heavier questions are asked, or when Hollywood politics are prodded at directly, such as the Motion Picture Code’s racial laws forbidding cross-racial kisses, or the possibilities of foreign landscapes such as Berlin and London offering diverse performers chances to succeed in new, more creative ways.
There are also tragic elements to Wong’s story that land well, such as her relegation to repetitively uninteresting roles or her uneven relationship with her family. Other aspects of her personality, however, such as her possible bisexuality and burgeoning self-centeredness are only hinted at in passing, without enough depth to make either of these crucial elements of Wong’s character seem important to Ericson’s view of her. This omission feels somewhat cheap and misguided, but thankfully Yim embodies Wong with enough verve that there is not much room to dislike what An Evening With Miss Wong puts forward.
The most arresting element of this production is its recreation of Wong’s musical talent. Pearl Yim’s arrangements of a few Old Hollywood songs are all lovely, though again somewhat light and brisk; that is, until the finale of the show, a soulful, heartening rendition of “These Foolish Things,” a gorgeous classic actually written about Miss Wong herself, that deserves ovation all by itself. Between this finale, Yim’s charming Old Hollywood personification, and the noble approach in general of reminding modern audiences of this long-gone legend, An Evening With Miss Wong is a Fringe project well worthy of your time.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller (Seen 9 August)