Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Review - "Speak Up Connie"

By Rob Hartmann

Actress and writer Cindy Cheung's solo show, SPEAK UP CONNIE, is hilarious, thought-provoking and touching. The sold-out run at Stage Left Studio has been extended for five more performances in February (see production details below.)

Ms. Cheung's material is drawn from the usual topics one might see in a performer's solo turn: growing up, working in show business, and so on. SPEAK UP CONNIE stands apart from other shows in this genre - the stories are told with sharp and telling detail (she lists the words which describe her Los Angeles childhood as "Disney, piano, cul de sac, swimming, and Olivia Newton-John." That says it all.)

The evening's arc weaves several disparate narratives together in a way that is unpredictable yet satisfying: being a "good Chinese girl" (her mother explains away her own temper - "That's my Korean side!"); transitioning from math major to actress; her complicated relationship with her mother. Ms. Cheung brings a open-hearted humor to her description of the many death-by-a-thousand-cuts incidents of conscious and unconscious racism that she has encountered. No matter what your background, you will find yourself thinking, yes, absolutely! as Ms. Cheung homes in on the universal nature of the painful awkwardness present in so many human interactions.

Ms. Cheung has worked in theater (NAATCO's The Seagull), television (three flavors of Law & Order, Sex and the City) as well as movies - she hilariously recounts her mother's willingness to harangue strangers everywhere when Cheung landed a leading role in Lady in the Water. Standing in line: "Have you heard of M. Night Shyamalan…?" Cheung uses every instrument in the actor's toolkit to fully inhabit the stage - she deftly conjures up all the other characters through her witty vocal mimicry and natural comedienne's elastic physicality. In one anecdote, when her mother is madly videoing her while she sings in a piano bar, you'd swear the stage is occupied by more than one person.

Much credit for the evening's structure and look naturally must go to the director, BD Wong. Perhaps best known as an actor (Oz, Law & Order: SVU, M. Butterfly), Mr. Wong is also a published author, and, as this show demonstrates, a resourceful and imaginative director. (The program notes that "Choreography, lighting, sound, projection & graphic design also by BD Wong… thanks, BD") Mr. Wong and Ms. Cheung make good use of Stage Left Studio's intimate stage, aided by Ellen Rosenburg’s subtle but effective lighting. The show incorporates smart sound design, video, and a few humorous original tunes which Ms. Cheung sings while accompanying herself on the ukulele. (That’s right. The ukulele. And it’s swell.)

Sometimes the genre of the solo show can feel like a platform for self-aggrandizement or a substitute for therapy. SPEAK UP CONNIE feels like a play ­ well constructed, thematically sound – smartly delivered by an immensely engaging performer.

The show's title refers to both Cheung's natural don't-rock-the-boat instincts, and this typical exchange when she introduces herself: "Hi, I'm Cindy Cheung." "Hi, Connie!" After this show, you won't forget the name "Cindy Cheung." And you’ll want to grab this opportunity to see her rock the boat and speak her mind.

Rob Hartmann is a composer and writer based in New York City.

Written and performed by Cindy Cheung
With original music and lyrics by Cindy Cheung
Directed by BD Wong

A comedy about getting a word in edgewise.

February 5, 7-8, 12 & 15 @ 7:30pm
Running time 75 mins

$20 admission ($2 ticketing surcharge will be added.)

Stage Left Studio
214 W 30th St
6th Floor
(between 7th Ave & 8th Ave)

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