Jen-uinely brilliant

The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen

Book and lyrics by Brian Vinero
Based on the novel by Lloyd Alexander
Music by Seth Weinstein
Directed by Joel Froomkin
Dim Sum Theatricals
Midtown International Theatre Festival/Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex Mainstage
312 West 36th Street (212/279-4200;;
Equity showcase (closes Aug. 3)
Review by Charles Battersby

Lloyd Alexander is probably best known for his Prydain Chronicles (poorly adapted by Disney into The Black Cauldron). But he also wrote a swarm of other books. Among them is The Remarkable Journey of Prince Jen. Jen is the story of a young Chinese prince who sets out on a quest for the mythical kingdom of T'ien Kuo.

Along the way, Jen (Elton Lin) acquires a band of companions, including the loyal Mafoo (Arthur Delos Santos), the beautiful Voyaging Moon (Veronica Arriola), and the half-crazed Moxa (played by lanky Timothy Huang as the Asian answer to John Cleese). There's also the mysterious Masters Hu, Wu, Shu, Chu, and Foo (Richard Chang). But not everyone out there wants to be Jen's friend. The villainous Yellow Scarves, led by the evil Natha (Keo Woolford), are out to steal Jen's kingdom and his magic singing sword (voiced by Christina Nuki). It's a classic "boy who would be king" story, at which Lloyd Alexander excels. Fans of Alexander simply must see Prince Jen, if only for the subtle allusions to Alexander's other work: "I should have taken that Assistant Pig-keeper position!"

Prince Jen has been adapted to a musical by Dim Sum theatricals, and it's an example of just how big a show can be squeezed into a small production. Produced as a reading, with its 19-member cast filling the relatively small stage, Jen crammed more spectacle and action into this reading than many musicals have as full-fledged productions. Seventy-five percent of the stage was taken up by the cast and their chairs, thereby preventing a real set, but an extensive supply of props was cleverly simulated everything from a thunderstorm to a bush to a flaming barricade. The sets and props were upstaged, though, by the elaborate costuming (Erica Weiner) and masks.

Director Joel Froomkin blocked almost all of the action in the front of the stage (the seated cast occupied everywhere else), yet this tiny bit of playing area was all he needed to bring to life battlefields, flooding rivers, and the magical conjuring of tiger spirits (the tiger was choreographed by Maria Zannieri).

The massive cast left more than a few actors lost in the background or beneath costumes, but a few hams (Like Miki Yamashita) managed to stand out, and the principal performers (Jen, Mafoo, Voyaging Moon, Moxa, and the Masters) formed a superb ensemble.

Composer Seth Weinstein uses music in the style of Chinese Opera (with the occasional appearance of a canned gong sound effect), but the show had an overall American sound to it, with Weinstein himself discreetly hidden upstage to play keyboard for the show. His music is nothing short of haunting, particularly Master Wu's "T'ien Kuo" and "In Your Hand," sung by Natha's magic sword.

Brian Vinero captures the spirit of Lloyd Alexander's writing but, while Alexander wrote primarily for children, Vinero's script is by no means a children's story. It's a perfect show to take kids to, but also something grownups will enjoy.

(Also featuring Kathleen Siapno, Christopher Gallego, Rose Bae, Dilloam Dao, Vivien End, David Cho, Cynthia Lin, Scottie Gage, and Michelle Liu Coughlin.)

Box Score:

Book: 2
Music: 2
Lyrics: 2
Directing: 2
Performing: 2
Sets: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting/Sound: 2

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Copyright 2003 Charles Battersby