Finding beauty in a harsh setting

Musical chronicles a young Filipino's pursuit of the American dream

Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2005

Long before playwright Chay Yew started work on his new musical, "The Long Season," he and director Peter DuBois already knew what structure they wanted the story to take.

"It has a very traditional musical theater quality, which was important for us," said DuBois, formerly the artistic director at Perseverance Theatre, and back in town for the play.

"You look at all the famous musical theater couples, let's say Tony and Maria from 'West Side Story' or Curly and Laurey from 'Oklahoma,' and we really wanted to use that traditional love story structure to tell the story of Allos and Belen and the community of cannery workers," he said. "The source material is really as dramatic and inspiring as the dramatic foundation of any American musical of the last 50 years."

"The Long Season" opens at 8 p.m. Friday, March 25 and plays through April 10. It runs at 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 6 p.m. Sundays, except at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 10.

Tickets are $17 on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, $22 on Fridays and Saturdays. Seniors are $5 off, and students are $10 with a valid ID. Call 463-TIXS, visit www.perseverancetheatre.org or Hearthside Books for more information.

The play follows Allos (Paolo Montalban), a young Filipino in the 1930s, who has left his country and his love for what he dreams will be a better life in the United States. We catch up with him in Seattle, where he signs a contract to work for a Ketchikan salmon cannery.

Once in Alaska, Allos finds that cannery work is more like slave labor than the world of riches he had envisioned. He also finds Belen (Melody Butiu), wife of cannery foreman Conrado (Bernardo Bernardo). His romantic life and the cannery are soon beset by conflict.

"The (Filipinos in Alaska) were cheap labor," choreographer Ricci Adan said. "They canned millions of salmon for 72 hours, and sometimes they didn't even rest. They were given pennies. They cut their arm, they'd go back to Seattle with a one-way ticket. There was no compensation.

"The play is about people," she said. "Even with that kind of structure, that kind of lifestyle, they still see the beauty and the imagination in the place itself."

Raised in Singapore, Yew is a playwright whose plays have been produced by major theaters in Los Angeles, New York and London, and regional theaters all over the country. The Mark Taper Forum will present his latest play, "A Distant Shore," in May 2005.

"I had always been interested in Chay's work, especially in how he dealt with issues of home and immigration and sort of this interrogation of the American dream," DuBois said. "We decided it would be great to look at the stories of Filipino-Alaskans and their immigration experience."

At the time, Yew was reading "America is in the Heart" by Filipino poet Carlos Bulosan. The book chronicles Bulosan's childhood in the Philippines, his quest for a better life in America and the bleak reality of rural labor: poverty, bigotry and despair. The story was a great inspiration.

"As a team we were searching for a way to bring these stories to life on stage, and I think we very quickly came to the decision that it should be fictionalized," DuBois said. "Through fiction, and through a story that deals with immigrant archetypes, we could really go deeper than if we just did a docudrama."

Yew researched Filipino-Alaskan history through interviews, the Alaska State Library and an assortment of references, including Thelma Buchholdt's "Filipinos in Alaska: 1788-1958." The writing process took about two years of revisions, including changes to accompany Fabian Obispo's evolving score.

Obispo composed the score for Perseverance's production of "Midsummer Night's Dream." He also worked with Perseverance artistic director PJ Paparelli recently on the Folger Theatre's presentation of "Romeo & Juliet."

"It's almost an operatic score," Bernardo said. "It has patches of Sondheim. It has patches of Filipino culture. And there is something very modern about it."

Bernardo is a popular actor and stand-up comic in the Philippines and recently starred as Prudencio in the Chicago run of "The Romance of Magno Rubio," based on "America is in the Heart."

"Apart from the whole intention of trying to give life to these early immigrants and their hardships and entanglements, what drew me to the script was that the characters were all fleshed out," Bernardo said. "They go through wonderful changes, and the possibilities of where it could go were almost operatic. They have beautiful emotional arguments, and you can picture the problems they would encounter and the decisions they would make. It is just an exciting adventure."

Bernardo saw the role of Conrado as a challenge.

"The easiest way for the lazy actor would be to play a villain," he said. "But this is a very complicated role, for a person who's actually very loving. He is a person who learns to accept an unhappy compromise in his work situation and in his love situation, and it can be played for drama, but there is humor in it. And there's sadness in the absurdity of the situation that he finds himself in. There's hope that something can come out of this tangled relationship."

The other leads are also experienced performers. Montalban was named one of People Magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" in 1998. He's best-known for playing Kung Lao in "Mortal Kombat" and the prince, alongside Brandy, in ABC-Disney's take on "Cinderella." But he has also starred in a string of Broadway plays.

Butiu has worked with Yew before in regional theater productions in Boston and California.

DuBois developed "The Long Season" at the Public Theatre in New York City, where he's now the associate producer. The theater hosted a workshop on the play last fall and drew an audience of about 300. DuBois and Yew hope to take the production to other stages after its run in Juneau.

"We would love to see the play have life after this production," DuBois said.

• Korry Keeker can be reached at korry.keeker@juneauempire.com.



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