To compare Tea with Music to a traditional musical is to accept that there is a singular style of musical. And yet, the modern musical is anything but traditional. The art form has evolved recently, with productions such as In the Heights, Avenue Q, Caroline or Change, Movin’ Out, and The Lion King redefining what had long been Rogers and Hammerstein territory. And with East West Players’ production of Tea with Music, the musical art form is further reinvented.
The production team has, for the most part, refrained from calling the show a musical. Indeed, the multi-talented Velina Hasu Houston makes note of that in the title. The work is based on her internationally renowned play Tea — which is celebrating its 25th anniversary. Centered around a group of Japanese war brides in Kansas who gather in the home of another who shot herself, Tea with Music offers an balanced amount of dialogue and music. Yet through Houston’s script, the poeticism sings even without supplementary tunes.
That brings about the thought: “Is it necessary?” Music here mostly delivers elegance of expression, especially when what is spoken — and the manner in which it is spoken — proves difficult. While it may seem that breaking into song makes grim issues too palatable, the show does more than just adding vocal trills and melodies, and delves into the richness underneath.
There’s no doubt: Houston is one smart writer. With an incredible talent for imbuing so much in so few words, Houston utilizes various motivations for breaking out in song. At first, song is used as the haunting of a dead friend. Then it’s used when the group fails to be able to express themselves. As the friends evolve into a more supportive unit, issues surrounding assimilation of their selves and their children inspire more traditional song-and-dance numbers. The underscoring of the loss of Japanese traditions is contrasted with the more show tune-y approach.
The beauty of Houston’s writing is that there’s so much to take in. At the very beginning, I thought to myself, “I have to see this again.” I knew I wanted to appreciate the many aspects of her work that I was unable to capture the first time around.
Like tea, Tea with Music is something to be savored. There’s no aspect of the production that makes the experience a bitter one. Strong performances are supplied from the five actresses, particularly Janet Song. At times, integral moments sped by too quickly, as if we weren’t given a chance to breathe in completely what had been brewed. Much like the majority of Sondheim songs, Tea with Music’s songs don’t do well as singular entities. But all the pieces are interdependent and structurally accountable to each other. Full-bodied and with great depth, meaning, and intention, Tea With Music is something you want to go back to for more.
photos by Michael LaMont, provided by East West Players.