Monday, May 13, 2024

"Blended Harmony" at the History Theatre, a co-production with Theater Mu

Wrapping up an excellent season of world premieres, the History Theatre is bringing us another gem of a local story - Blended Harmony: The Kim Loo Sisters, a co-production with Theater Mu. If you've never heard of this Chinese-Polish-American family of singers from Minneapolis, well, you have now! Referred to at the time as "the Chinese Andrews Sisters," they toured the Vaudeville circuit before making their Broadway debut in the late '30s. That's where this story picks up, and we follow them through the next several years, through conflicts, touring, and reunion. It's a heart-warming story of family and identity, told with a fabulous swing era score, with touches of Chinese and Polish sounds as well. See this original, historical, feel-good musical now through May 26.

Four sisters Sophie, Maggie, Jenee, and Bubbles are rehearsing for their Broadway debut as part of George White's Scandals (think Ziegfield Follies). Their momager, a Polish immigrant, sews their costumes and negotiates their contract, while their father, a Chinese immigrant, stays home in Minneapolis and works. They performed with another rising star, Ann Miller, who advises them to "go full Chinatown" or "wipe it clean." Being biracial performers in the '30s was a tough path, but they managed to carve out a niche for themselves, even if they had to make some compromises along the way. But despite the beautiful close harmonies on stage, these sisters were individuals and sometimes disagreed off stage. So much so that one of them left the group, leaving only three. The second act of the musical splits time between the US and overseas USO tours of the trio, and Jenee's new life as a wife, mother, and daughter-in-law of an important Chinese general. They each found their own way in life, but still together.

the Kim Loo sisters (Kelsey Angel Baehrens, Morgan Kempton,
Audrey Mojica, and Suzie Juul, photo by Rich Ryan)
Mu's Artistic Director Lily Tung Crystal directs the musical and stages it well, balancing the lightness and more serious moments. And she really could not have found four more charming and talented actors to play these sisters than Suzie Juul, Morgan Kempton, Kelsey Angel Baehrens, and Audrey Mojica. Each one of them is a star, and together they sing like a dream, with a believable sisterly love between them. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree here; their "parents" are stars too. The always wonderful Ann Michels is a tough, funny, gorgeously singing Mama, and she has a couple of great partners. #TCTheater newcomer Ariel Estrada is a lovely Papa (who spends most of the show apart from the family), and a slightly scary general. Mama also goes toe-to-toe with George White, played by #TCTheater veteran J.C. Cutler, who's a delight. Another newcomer Ethan Yaheen-Moy Chan makes for a dreamy love interest for one (or more) of the sisters, and Audrey Parker wows as Ann Miller.

Mama (Ann Michels) and her girls (Kelsey Angel Baehrens,
Audrey Mojica, Suzie Juul, and Morgan Kempton, photo by Rich Ryan)
The story is well-constructed by playwright/lyricist Jessica Huang (who is also of Chinese and Eastern European descent), focusing on this busy and eventful time in their lives, and traveling through time and space in a clear and cohesive way. Composer Jacinth Greywoode has created a lovely score that evokes the swing era of the '30s and '40s, and also draws on the family's Chinese and Polish heritage in some songs as well. Rush Benson's choreography also has that wonderful mix, with fun group performance numbers, and some really beautiful traditional Chinese fan work.

George White (J.C. Cutler) directs the sisters
(Audrey Mojica, Suzie Juul, and Morgan Kempton, photo by Rich Ryan)
As appropriate for this story that takes place on many stages around the world, the History Theatre stage is mostly bare and open, in front of an elevated stage space where the small but mighty four-piece band (led by Music Director Elise Santa on piano) sits in full view for most of the show, sometimes part of the story. Curtains occasionally drop in front of or behind them, with a liberal use of projections to take us to the various locations, along with a large stage door and other furniture pieces rolled out when needed. The gorgeous period clothing includes many matching sets for the sisters, from showy costumes to neat plaid coats to '40s army-inspired outfits. (Scenic design by Mina Kinukawa, video design by Miko Simmons, costume design by Mathew J. LeFebvre.)

What the History Theatre does best is tell mostly unknown stories about people and events related to Minnesota, and make history engaging, relatable, and entertaining. They've done that this season with The Boy Wonder (about Minnesota's youngest governor Harold Stassen), I Am Betty (Crocker, returning next season), A Unique Assignment (about a Minnesota soldier assigned to protect the first Black student at the University of Mississippi), and now about these Chinese-American singing sisters who made it all the way from Minneapolis to Broadway. Enjoy this heart-warming true story, wonderfully told through music and enchanting performances, now through May 26.