Theater Review: INTERSTATE (East West Players)

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by Tony Frankel on June 14, 2022

in Theater-Los Angeles


In the age of A Strange Loop, the hit Broadway musical about a “Big Black Queer” it seems the time is ripe for more musicals about the gay experience, but one with transgender characters as leads? Lesbian singer-songwriter Melissa Li and transgender spoken-word artist Kit Yan formed a band named Good Asian Drivers, which began touring in 2008. Inspired by their time on the road as an “activist band” Yan began writing a musical with Li that mirrored their story. (Which is precisely what writer Michael R. Jackson did for A Strange Loop.) The result is Interstate, a sunny, uncomplicated, feel-good musical comedy which opened at East West Players in Los Angeles last night.

 The cast of INTERSTATE
Krystle Simmons and Kristian Espiritu

Li and Yan’s  book is arguably the best part of the show — and that’s a HUGE compliment, as the book is usually present just to get to the next song, as with Moulin Rouge! The plot is undercooked, yet the engaging story concerns lesbian singer-songwriter Adrian (Kristian Espiritu) and her bestie, transgender spoken-word artist Dash (Jupiter Lê), friends for years, who take their band Queer Malady on their first tour throughout America. Aside from the issues arising just from who they are (Dash posts a vlog diary, so his being transgender is no secret), the duo are also on the brink of new careers, hers involving an offer for a solo tour (as the prime conflict in the show, that conceit does wear a little thin). The pressure of a tour is hard enough, but we also have Carly (a terrifically powerful and funny Krystle Simmons), Adrian’s former lover who crashes the party; Dash’s overly accepting dad (vulnerable, hilarious, pitch perfect Reuben Uy); and Adrian’s tiger-parenting mom (a wonderfully manipulative and demanding Michelle Noh). Feelings, fidelity, and faithfulness to the band will bring tensions to the surface.

Jaya Joshi

A B-side story involves another transgender vlogger, sixteen-year-old Henry (Jaya Joshi), who has yet to start his change to manhood. Dash is Henry’s hero, so he leaves his small religious town in Kentucky after taking his first shot of T (testosterone) to catch the band in San Francisco.

Ruben Uy, Kristian Espiritu, Stefan Miller and Jupiter Lê

Li’s music has some catchy moments, some in the vein of bubble-gum, 50s’ Rocky Horror songs, but without the hooks. The lyrics by her and Yan bring in some great rapping, but I missed the humor that makes the book work. And, frankly, at least 50% of the lyrics on opening night were completely and shamefully lost by an overpowering band. which doesn’t make sense given Cricket Myers‘ involvement with sound design. The good news is that we could hear Macy Schmidt‘s awesome Spring Awakening-like orchestrations — heavy on sumptuous cello and violin.

The cast of INTERSTATE.

Jesca Prudencio‘s direction fills the large stage, and while she can come up with good stage pictures, there is little in the way of nuance and beats, and the scenes can sometimes feel comic book. Interstate is an amazingly successful show given it’s a) a world premiere and b) a first time effort for the creators. But there is still a heavy reliance on band numbers and inner monologues as songs, which rarely move the plot forward. Still, I’m gonna recommend this outing. There’s a lotta positivity in this production.

Reuben Uy, Kristian Espiritu, and Jupiter LêJupiter Lê and Jaya Joshi

photos by Steven Lam

rolling world premiere
East West Players
David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 Judge John Aiso Street
Fri at 8; Sat at 2 & 8; Sun at 5 (some Thurs at 8)
ends on June 26, 2022
for tickets, call 213.625.7000 or visit East West Players

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