ALAMEDA -- "The Song of the Nightingale" is one of the most ambitious yet carefully worked out shows Altarena Playhouse has ever attempted.
Composer-playwright Min Kahng has created an exquisite musical stage version of Hans Christian Andersen's story, "The Nightingale." Nineteen roles are sung, danced and performed entirely by Asian actors. Unlike "Flower Drum Song," which featured an older Asian cast in a musical that used New York City as its locale, "The Song of the Nightingale" takes place in the ancient empire of China. It uses actors, music, movement and situations focused on that era.
A simple set, designed by Anya Kazimierski, utilizes designs that remind one of China in centuries past. Props are just as authentic, such as fishermen's knives tightly tied to poles to be used as swords.
Beautiful costuming also takes the audience back to early times. Fabrics of bright colors -- or in one scene, various shades of brown -- are lovely to look at.
One outstanding costume is worn by comic Mike Tran, playing a fake nightingale "made in Japan" by skilled craftsmen. It is brightly covered with feathers and fabrics similar to sequins. Tran's head is covered with a shaped mask that includes a beak. On his back is a wind-up device that seems to govern his actions.
The dances Tran executes are as exuberant as his costume. The real nightingale's words are performed by flutist Keith Leung, a member of Dean Starnes' seven-piece orchestra. Deedre Wong, smaller in stature than any other cast member, gracefully dances to Kahng's exquisite score for her lines, completing them with expressive facial expressions.
Wong choreographed her role with the play's sensitive director, Christina Lazo, a teacher at Alameda's Dance/10 Performing Arts Center.
Other roles are well sung by all of the actors including DC Scarpelli, who plays the Emperor, and Sean Fenton and Lindsay Hirata, as the two young main characters. Fenton's song near the end of the play, "The Girl I Know," is warm and emotional -- moving enough to ultimately become a favorite.
Hirata carries most of the drama in the show, playing a poor girl who longs to raise her station in life. When she eventually learns the emptiness of this desire, she almost loses the man who loves her deeply.
As the Emperor, Scarpelli plays the longest and perhaps the most demanding role.
He grows from a spouting, demanding ruler to a dying, wise man thanks, essentially, to the small brown bird.
Ryan Cairel is an ensemble player until near the end of the show when he suddenly appears as Death. This role demands more dancing expertise than any onstage, other than the nightingale herself. Cairel's movements are as well done as those of a ballet dancer.
A modern touch is added by Alexis Wong, playing Madam Wu, sister of the Emperor, who makes all major decisions except one involving herself. She plays her role sincerely, reacting to every happening in the story. Toward the end of the play, she runs away, refusing to be told what she should do.
Since this musical lasted almost three hours, I suggest you bring children to one of the Sunday afternoon presentations.
But whenever you can, do go to see this enchanting "Song of the Nightingale."
What: Min Kahng's "The Song of the Nightingale"
Where: Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High St., Alameda
When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 17 and Thursday, Nov. 14; and 2 p.m. Sundays
Tickets: $21 to $24
Information: 510-523-1553 or www.Altarena.org