Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon by Matthew C. Yee is a light romp with a dark twist followed by a hasty, muddled ending wrapped up in a cloud of very good music – all of which is performed by a remarkable cast of actor musicians.
This adventure revolves around Asian identity, Asian stereotypes and the experience of being Asian in America so I will simply set the stage now.
The following characters are all presented in the production as Asian or Asian-American: Charlie (Matthew C. Yee) and Lucy (Aurora Adachi-Winter), Grandma (Wai Ching Ho), Peter (Rammel Chan), Jeff (Daniel Lee Smith) and Bao (Harmony Zhang).
Characters presented as non-Asian are senior security professional agent Feinberg (Mary Williamson), Gabriel (Matt Bittner) and Martin (Doug Pawlik).
Lucy and Charlie met two weeks ago. Charlie has dubbed himself an Asian-American renegade and recently reinvented himself as a cool cowboy which attracted Lucy to him. They married and are on a poorly conceived amateurish crime adventure.
Charlie’s brother Peter, a security agent trainee, finds himself in the awkward position of investigating a convenience store robbery involving the pair.
In the meantime, at a rest stop, Lucy befriends Bao, a recent arrival from China, who is waiting to be picked-up by her sponsor, ostensibly to work for a cleaning company which Lucy quickly determines is really a front for a sex slave operation.
Peter gets his boss Feinberg, his grandma, and uncle Jeff involved to help rescue the couple, who, with Bao, have taken refuge at Grandma’s cottage in Winnebago, WI where the two hope to elude the sex-slave operators, Gabriel and Martin.
Kudos to Matthew C. Yee who wrote the book and music, plays the role of Charlie and performs a significant amount of the accompaniment as an onstage guitarist and does it all very well.
I feel Yee shot himself in the foot by not making his songs a little more universal and slightly less specific to the production.
All of the great commercially successful musicals have songs that can break out of the confines of the story and speak to a larger human condition. allowing them to stand apart and take on a life of their own.
The storyline had a spark of brilliance in the tradition of many classic screwball comedies, crime mysteries or culture clash stories. My major complaint is the use of gratuitous gun violence to resolve and ultimately squander the conflict that Yee spent the first act rather expertly crafting.
Additionally waving guns around in a post Alec Baldwin “Rust” era can be a bit disconcerting to audience members who find themselves looking down the barrel for extended periods of time. (Note to violence designers R+D Choreography, direct the action upstage as much as possible).
In act two the story takes a jarring turn, resulting in a schizophrenic tone. If you want to have fun then have fun. If you want to be serious then do that. Mixing the two has been done but it takes a deft hand. In this case it just seemed like an easy way out. This might be satisfactory in an improvisation or workshop but not as a finished production in a downtown theater especially if there is any thought of wider distribution.
Much of the overall production credit goes to director Amanda Dehner. The entire cast is outstanding, while also being exceptional musicians, breathing life into the material provided by Yee.
It was apparent they understood his vision and executed it expertly in front of a dizzying and whimsical array of floor to ceiling Western and Far East artifacts assembled by scenic director Yu Shibagaki.
Screen projections by projection designer Paul Deziel were helpful for sharing song lyrics and interjecting a bit of humor when referencing images we would were not be able to see. Sully Ratke provided a thoughtful and amusing costume selection.
Yee’s portrayal of Charlie affects a kind of deep silent type cowboy image that definitely takes a backseat to the over-the-top energy of Lucy who is driving much of the action. Peter, Grandma, and Jeff as a comical triumvirate of stereotypes handle the material well. It is obvious the playwright and the actors understand how far they can go when working with ethnic humor.
This group would make a very effective sitcom or web series. But I caution Yee to treat them and their situations with more respect.
Here is my dilemma. I work with an Asian non-profit organization in Uptown, have a number of close Asian friends and some individuals of Asian descent in my extended family. When I think about recommending Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon to them, I cringe.
The Boomers and GenX folks especially those who were not born here might find some of the content offensive or at least sophomoric and it’s a bit too rough for the teen and preteen crowd.
That leaves the middle 20- to 40-year-olds who were born here and grew up in a cross-cultural environment that at times, confused and maybe even embarrassed their elders. It’s full of a lot of insider humor. I get this and I know two thirty-something Asian guys who would love this and totally get it. Though this limited target audience is probably not adequate to create the level of success the essence of this play deserves.
Every American-ethnic group has experienced what Yee is trying to convey and it’s an important story. But it has to be told in a way that a general audience can understand and appreciate.
Sex-trafficking and other exploitation of immigrants is a very serious topic that deserves more than a cursory glance and cartoonish treatment.
So as much as I love the actors, characters and the music and appreciate the premise, I can only somewhat recommend Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon.
It’s an entertaining Asian-American rockabilly musical but playwright Yee should give “Lucy and Charlie” a second look.
Details: Lucy and Charlie’s Honeymoon is at the Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Avenue through July 16, 2023. Runtime is 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. For tickets and information visit lookingglasstheatre.org
For more shows visit Theatre in Chicago