Story lifts ACT’s Elevator to great heights

Apr 17

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Joseph Anthony Foronda is El Elevator and Julius Ahn is Guāng in American Conservatory Theater’s world premiere of the musical Stuck Elevator at the Geary Theater. Below: Ahn as Guāng feels the pressure of being stuck in an elevator for days on end. Photos by Kevin Berne

It’s hard to imagine a better production of Stuck Elevator than the one now on view at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater. Production values and performance levels are superlative, and the show makes a forceful impression.

This world premiere by Bryon Au Yong (music) and Aaron Jafferis scores major points for originality. In telling the story of immigrants in America, they take their inspiration from the real-life tale of a Chinese restaurant delivery man, Kuang Chen, who was trapped for 81 hours in a stuck elevator in a Bronx highrise.

Their story sticks to the major details from this 2005 incident, but their protagonist is Guāng, an illegal immigrant who paid $120,000 to be smuggled from China in a cargo ship. He works endless hours making minimal pay to send home to his wife and young son and to pay down his massive debt.

The telling of Guāng’s story is the most powerful aspect of this 81-minute musical. The central performance by Julius Ahn is extraordinary for its vocal purity, stamina and emotional heft. We like Guāng almost immediately, and that’s due to Ahn and his low-key charm. Over the course of Guāng’s imprisonment, we watch as he registers panic, frustration, fear and despair among many other emotions.

The central tension of this tale, aside from the lack of food and water in the stuck elevator, is Guāng’s reluctance to push the emergency button that connects him directly with 911 and the police. As an undocumented worker, he would be deported, and his already troublesome life would become more so. He also panics when he sees the security camera in the elevator roof. He even fears that security might see him…and that they might not. He hides in a corner of the elevator out of the camera’s field of vision until he figures out that the elevator malfunction has rendered the camera inoperable.

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So much pressure contained in such a small space. The dominant emotion conveyed in this short but intense show is anxiety. So much weighs on Guāng’s shoulders that it’s hard not to feel the enormous pressure on his behalf. From Guāng’s point of view, he’s not ticking off the hours in the elevator as much as he’s thinking about how much money he’s losing each hour by not working. Au Yong’s music, under the music direction of Dolores Duran-Cefalu, conveys this anxiety more acutely than any other emotion.

Very soon after Guāng realizes that his predicament is not going to improve any time soon, the stage outside the elevator shaft (the marvelous set is by Daniel Ostling) begins to fill with Guāng’s memories, fantasies and nightmares, of which he has many. There was the nightmarish crossing from China, the beastly Boss’s Wife back at the Happy Dragon restaurant and two splashy, colorful interludes – one involving Atlantic City and the promise of easy jackpots and the other a wrestling match between El Elevator and “Big Guāng.”

Such episodes are really there to give the audience the kind of mental and emotional break that the real guy stuck in the elevator never had. While we have music and scenes played out for our entertainment, he only had four close walls and silence.

The supporting cast, which includes Raymond J. Lee, Marie-France Arcilla, Joel Perez and Joseph Anthony Foronda in multiple roles, is fantastic, and all have powerful, dynamic voices. But director Chay Yew never lets us forget that this is all about Guāng.

Of course we want him to escape the elevator, but he’s escaping into what kind of life? A life of being worked like a slave? A life of being mugged in hallways? A life of having to sell your cell phone just to appease debtors? If the goal here is to highlight the plight of the immigrant, the people we interact with on a regular basis, then Stuck Elevator is a huge success.

My only complaint is that I was never able to connect with Au Yong’s music in any way other than intellectually. I appreciated its beauty at certain points and liked how effectively it conveyed anxiety and passion and compassion and even worked in a little hip-hop and rap. But I missed a melody that I could grab hold of, a song with an emotional apex and a real ending. It’s a sophisticated score an an unconventional musical to be sure, but I longed for a moment or two of something simpler and more directly emotional. More conventional.

But when it all comes together, as it does in a scene that begins with the harrowing recollection of a mugging, morphs into a violent fantasia and ends with a betrayal of bodily functions, Stuck Elevator is a bold, imaginative creation that expressively tells the kind of story we need to hear more often.

FOR MORE INFORMATION
American Conservatory Theater’s Stuck Elevator continues through April 28 at the Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $20-$85. Call 415-749-2228 or visit www.act-sf.org.

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