Comedy, Stage

Asian Provocateur review (Hayes Theatre, Sydney)

| |

When Josie Lane was in primary school, she didn’t have many friends. As a young half-Filipino girl in a school full of caucasian students, Lane was ostracised and called Ching Chong Chinaman until a bunch of cool kids asked her to play Power Rangers. But when they all insisted that she play the yellow ranger (i.e. the Asian one), Lane realised that she had only been picked for the novelty of her race: “That’s fine by me. I’ll be your yellow ranger. I’m totally happy to be good at Kung Fu and tactical support.”

Asian Provocateur is Lane’s new cabaret, which is an exploration of her own Asian identity largely through the songs written for Asian characters in musical theatre. She’s played some of these roles, including Marcy Park in The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and understudied Cynthia in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and Christmas Eve in Avenue Q.

While Lane’s career in musical theatre has been surprisingly diverse, the “yellow ranger syndrome” clearly follows her. Her race is often a factor in her career, and Asian Provocateur addresses that with bawdy, sidesplitting laughs and some brilliant musical moments.

She’s accompanied by musical director Mathew Frank, who follows Lane into whatever musical territory she travels — from the quiet balladry of Reflection through to the sizzle of One Night in Bangkok.

There’s actual toilet humour and a shocking section about live sex shows which suddenly turns from hilarious to heart-breaking. Lane does not let the audience forget that they’re laughing at what is, in many cases, horrific exploitation, and humanises a group of people who the west would like to forget are actually human. But Lane doesn’t dwell on these points for too long.

This is a show which draws a steady torrent of laughter and is performed in a style that closely resembles stand up comedy. But it has a single-minded focus lying underneath all the laughs, which make this a smart and surprisingly ambitious cabaret. Lane claims back the Asian stereotypes that have been applied to her (with awareness that she does so from a position of relative privilege) in her “Ching Chong sing-along”, complete with stereotypically Asian costumes and a set by James Browne, which she describes as resembling an Asian restaurant with a small stage for karaoke in the corner.

Lane’s voice has a tough edge with a strong pop belt which she puts to use on numbers like I’d Give My Life For You (from Miss Saigon), but reveals a more gentle, legit musical theatre sound on Something Wonderful (from The King and I). What’s constant throughout all her performances is a compelling intensity and connection to the lyrics.

In fact, Something Wonderful is one of the clear highlights, although Lane reveals that she wasn’t even given an audition for the most recent Australian production of The King and I, because she was deemed “not Asian enough”. This is the production in which Teddy Tahu Rhodes played the King of Siam.

But Lane says she understands why white actors are often cast in specifically Asian roles — there just aren’t enough Asian people in the world to play all those roles: “Look at China. Total dead zone.”

One one level, Asian Provocateur is deeply personal; about Lane’s childhood, family and relationship with her Filipino mother; and on another it’s quietly political; about the roles in which Australian society casts Asian people. It’s this dichotomy which makes the cabaret such a triumph.

The script and Lane’s delivery were both a little bit messy on opening night, but this performance was the show’s first ever public outing. It relies largely on a stand-up comedy style of patter, which always takes a few performances to settle. Once Lane works out which jokes are duds (although there really aren’t that many) and relaxes into the material a little more, this show should become an unstoppable force on the cabaret and comedy touring circuits.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *