Landless Theatre Co. Is known for creating theatrical productions simply meant to be fun and entertaining. From Gutenberg: The Musical to Evil Dead: The Musical to their recent sold out DC premiere of Dr. Horrible's Sing-A-Long Blog, audiences know they are in for an irreverent evening of theater.
And so it is with their latest endeavor, China: The Whole Enchilada now onstage at the DC Arts Center in the Adams Morgan Neighborhood. The DC Arts Center is a very tiny performance space which provides a nice intimate and engaging space for Landless and their audience members. The cast of three actors does well with the limitations of the material, the space and the recorded soundtrack, and under the direction of John Sadowsky gamely entertain you with a mostly humorous parade through Chinese history
The play was written by Mark Brown with additional music and arrangements by Paul Mirkovitch. Mr. Brown was inspired to write the show after adopting his daughter from China. Some of the choices as to what to highlight in Chinese history were obviously influenced by that event. In some ways therein lies the main problem with the show. Our gallant band of three actors dive into the material with great enthusiasm. It's just that the choices in some of that history are occasionally jarring and grind the proceedings to a halt.
China: The Whole Enchilada briskly romps through 4000 of recorded history with a game gang of three white guys, Andrew Lloyd Baughman, Ben Demers and Matt Baughman. Stereotypes are acknowledged and made riotous fun over. History is skewered from philosophers to emperors to Chairman Mao. Good and bad history is exposed two parody alike. However not all of the material is handled in a comic vein. That is fine, but in this style of musical review it can bring the momentum to a halt.
There is nothing wrong with dramatizing for comedic effect the unsavory elements of history. One need only look at any of the better written pieces from the Reduced Shakespeare Company to which the format of China: The Whole Enchilada owes a great deal or even the current Broadway Musical The Book of Mormon to see that unlikeable cultural elements can be staged with macabre humorous effect. A prime example of this in China is the song "Lotus Shoes." The binding of women's feet is one of the horrifying cultural elements in Chinese history. But, the song about it is actually very funny. One can take from the song itself the message that this was a bad practice and yet smile at how the topic is brought to life on the stage. What grinds it to a halt is the follow-up of philosophical statements in Chinese history about how unimportant girls' lives are and the modern day one-child policy which has led to an extremely high abortion rate and the many young girls placed for adoption primarily because they aren't the coveted boys. One realizes that his is a subject that hit close to home for the playwright, but the place to discuss it isn't in a lighthearted review of Chinese history.
Despite moments such as that, China: The Whole Enchilada is a fun little show and is worth the two hours traffic upon the tiny stage. Andrew Lloyd Baughman is an engaging personality with a stunning voice. Matt Baughman is a gifted vocal mimic and comedic talent. Ben Demers gamely dives in to the insanity and has good comic timing even though he plays the sane member of the trio you'd think he was a long time veteran of Landless' zany style rather than making his debut with the company. The actors have the challenge of performing to recorded music which means that it is occasionally set too low for their vocal ranges. It is a shame that they are also miked. In that small a space the sound levels should be able to be adjusted so that miking the actors is not necessary.
China: The Whole Enchilada will be performed at DC Arts Center through April 24, 2011. For tickets and additional information please visit www.landlesstheatrecompany.org.
Full disclosure: The Thespian was a financial backer of this production. She hopes that this review is seen as fair and unbiased.