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‘Stuck Elevator’ is astute musical look at immigration

Julius Ahn portrays Guāng in A.C.T.’s “Stuck Elevator.” Photo: Kevin Berne.

 

Like God with a capital G, the little-g theater gods work in mysterious ways.

Or maybe it’s all happenstance.

Either way, A.C.T.’s “Stuck Elevator,” an insightful peek at the mental meanderings of Guāng, an undocumented Chinese worker, coincided with the U.S. Senate beginning debate on immigration reform and feasible pathways to legalization and citizenship.

The American Conservatory Theatre’s world-premiere musical leans on a true story of a takeout delivery guy trapped in a Bronx elevator 81 hours.

It’s chiefly about fear:

Rescuers might learn he has no papers, and that would lead to deportation.

Guāng frets, too, about thieves stealing the seat of his bike, a Mexican deliveryman “getting all my tips,” and being fired because he’s too old.

Stuck Elevator,” like Joseph’s biblical coat of many colors, rapidly becomes a metaphor, in this case unveiling deep personal feelings of apprehension, frustration and prejudice.

Its framework is a bilingual montage that conveys multi-pronged points (led by the strain of being an outsider).Thematically, the 80-minute, one-act show works incredibly well.

Yet it lacks the musical power it might have had despite the commendable operatic voices of Julius Ahn as Guāng and Marie-France Arcilla as Ming, his wife (who’s also stuck — in a Nike factory in China).

Because the issues are so blatant, the blandness in some of the sung-through score by Byron Au Yong and verbal redundancies by librettist Aaron Jafferis may leave audiences desiring more oomph. That’s true even with the show’s two dozen tunes cross-fertilizing contemplative Chinese melodies (albeit sometimes too withheld, other moments too screechy) with bouncy Latin airs and wistfully romantic refrains.

Ahn, as an immigrant caught as much in his fantasies and self-limitations as he is by the shaft, gets enough stage time for a one-man performance though four supporting actors play multiple roles.In rapid succession, he thrusts his voice, body language and facial expressions into an emotional gamut: fear, sadness, joy, acceptance.

But it’s Joel Perez as Guāng’s co-worker, Marco, who stops the show with a hip-hop tune.

In addition, Raymond J. Lee is artfully villainous as Snakehead, the human parasite who forced Guāng into lifelong debt by charging $120,000 to smuggle him and his nephew into this country. And Joseph Anthony Foronda is appropriately over-the-top in the drag role of the Ross’ Wife and the armor-clad Elevator Monster.

It takes no time for Ahn to bring home everyone’s dread of elevator entrapment and claustrophobia.

And it takes no time for the crowd to adjust to supertitles that alternately translate the lyrics into Chinese or English, depending on which language is being sung.

Occasional bittersweet humor makes the sung-through show’s earnestness more palatable — like a line referring to Guāng’s predicament being “the first time in my life I haven’t had to share a room.”Quirky characters that populate his past, current and future daydreams and nightmares also amuse.

Guāng sings and sings and sings — to himself, to his family, to the elevator.

His mental twists and turns include, at one point, being attacked in song by a

mugger, his boss’ wife, his own wife — and his bladder. At another juncture, he imagines becoming so successful he can make Donald Trump deliver chicken to him.

In his darkest reverie, though, he watches “the edge of mind…starting to fray.”

His fantasies sharply vary in tone.

The best one may be a sequence in which characters drum with chopsticks and then use them as utensils to poke at a carcass on a table.“Stuck Elevator” is ably supported by Daniel Ostling’s set design (with dreamlike frame and simple cage), effective projections by Kate Freer, lighting by Alexander V. Nichols that facilitates quick mood changes, and costuming by Myung Hee Cho that detail characters’ socioeconomic status as it showcases flamboyant figments of Guāng’s imagination.

The Bay Area, with its large blocs of new Hispanic and Asian immigrants (as well as older Italians, Russians and you-name-its), people who fled poverty and oppression, should be particularly receptive to “Stuck Elevator.”

Regular theater buffs are likely to enjoy it because it’s different.

Once-in-a-whilers might consider it because it’s inspirational, a paean to the human spirit.

“Stuck Elevator” plays at the American Conservatory Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco, through April 28. Night performances Tuesdays through Saturdays, 8 p.m., and Sundays, 7 p.m. matinees, Wednesdays, Saturdays. Tickets: $20 to $85. Information: (415) 749-2228 or www.act-sf.org.

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