“Love is in the journey,” sings the cast of “Sunfish” in the finale of this world premiere show. This aptly describes not only the musical itself, but the production process that has been, as director So Yeon Paek ’05 put it, “a huge discovery project.” Still in the workshop phase — Yale is one of many stops along the road to professional production — “Sunfish” indeed still needs some work.
The main problem with the show is the libretto. Sunfish retells, with a modern twist, a Korean folk tale about virginal peasant girl Aheh’s (Jessica Bian ’08) sacrifices to give her blind father sight. As the peasant girl, Bian confronts a vain woman, pirates and sailors in her various attempts to earn money and cure her father.
It is here that the show seems to have internal disagreements stylistically. With libretto and lyrics by Michael L. Cooper, the show vacillates between innocence and prurience and between classical references and modernity. Because of these near irreconcilable disparities, the show simply ends up campy — enjoyably campy, but not much more than that.
The original musical is a product of Tisch School of the Arts at NYU and has received the 2005 Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Award among other honors. The composer, Hyeyoung Kim, said that she sought to write music in the vein of Larson and Jason Robert Brown, bringing a sense of contemporary music to the theater, and she does so wonderfully. The music throughout feels fresh and moves through different styles effortlessly; from brassy to bluesy to ballady, it flows and fits both the modern style of the show and the plot well.
A fault with this production of “Sunfish” is the cast and production crew’s lack of experience. Possibly because of this, the performance is unpolished and lacks confidence. This is Paek’s directorial debut, as well as the theatrical debut for many of the cast, and it shows. Among other things, the dancing is awkward, which can be attributed to both the performers themselves and the choreographer.
Yet, as green as the cast and crew may be, there is an obvious love for the show apparent in the performances. Within mediocre dance steps one still senses the energy and enthusiasm for the material that swells as impressively as Kim’s score.
There are high points in the show. The blind father (Kyle Brooks ’05), while usually desultory in song and out of it, finally connects with a much clearer understanding in “Blind Man Blues.” Madame Omi (Lauren Jacobson ’08), Aheh’s employer, also comes through in the second act with her song “Look at Me,” though for the rest of the show she remains much too affected to be effective.
If for no other reason, one should see this show for Bian’s amazing performance. With an amazing voice and a strong understanding of lyric phrasing that often escapes many other members of the cast, she shines over and over again as the heroine. Bian truly grasps the innocence that the character embodies, yet tempers this with a strong sense of duty and sacrifice, and, ultimately, sacrifice and love are what this show is about.
If camp musicals, fairy tales, princes and happy endings appeal, or if sailors, plastic surgery, pirates and virgins intrigue, then “Sunfish” is a good bet. It has no pretensions, and it should be lauded for the simple fact that it is original musical theater done with many undergraduates who are self-proclaimed non-theater people. Its lyricist referred to it as “the little show that could,” and it can, but be forewarned that there are still many more stops along the route to greatness.