A decade ago, Mu Performing Arts collaborated with Park Square Theatre on a well-received production of "Pacific Overtures." It was the first Stephen Sondheim musical that Mu had ever done and it caused lightbulbs to go off in the heads of its leadership.
"For that show, I was hoping to have four or five Asian-American actors in a cast of 13," said director Rick Shiomi. "But people came out of the woodwork and we were able to cast the whole show with Asian-Americans. That showed us that the talent we had been cultivating was there and that there also was an appetite for this kind of work."
Now Mu is returning to the same venue, this time with its own production of another Sondheim musical, "Into the Woods." The show, which opens today in St. Paul, represents a milestone for the company. It will be the biggest show that the Mu has ever produced, with 20 actors, 19 of whom are Asian-Americans.
And it costs nearly one-sixth of the company's $600,000 annual budget.
"Sondheim is notoriously difficult to stage, both as a director and musically," Shiomi, who is helming the production, said last week before a rehearsal. "The stories in this show are complicated and layered. Right now we're in a crunch time but I think it's gonna be special."
Mu has tapped experienced and fresh talent for the show, whose cast features Randy Reyes, Katie Bradley and Sara Ochs. Musical conductor Denise Prosek, who works all over town, does the musical honors for "Woods."
Director Shiomi is aiming for an Asian fantasia. He has set Sondheim's fairytale mashup in the east. The music and lyrics remain the same. The Cinderella story now takes place in a Filipino context, he said, while the story of the baker and his wife who long to have a child happens in Korea. The scenic suggestions for "Jack and the Beanstalk"? That's Hmong.
The Asian setting is a natural fit, Shiomi said. "Many of these folktales have relatives in Asia, so there's a commonality at the root of them."
He is using Korean mask dance, for example, to get at the magical quality of witches. Shiomi is also using Japanese folk dances in the show.
Does that mean that Shiomi, best known for directing and nurturing a cadre of talented Asian-American actors, singers and writers for two decades, is adding choreographer to his title?
"By default," he laughed. "I had a choreographer who I was going to tell all my ideas but the choreographer had to drop out."
Building audience, capacity
Over the past five years, Mu has done a musical a year, building capacity as a company even as it gets great reception from ticket-buyers and critics. The company's productions of "The Walleye Kid," "Flower Drum Song" and "Little Shop of Horrors" are all well-remembered.
"Musicals are our biggest risks and, potentially, our biggest rewards," said Shiomi. "Over that time, there has been a growing recognition of our work and we've gotten better in doing them."
Still, when he talked about the show, he was sounding doubtful about how it would turn out, as if he might have bitten off more than he could chew with "Woods."
"When my actors Randy and Sara first suggested that we do this Sondheim musical, I didn't really think about its scale," said Shiomi. "They were interested in it because it has great female roles and the fit is right. I'm glad we made the decision to do it, but it's an epic show with five story lines and a huge first act."
"Woods" represents not only a milestone for Mu, but also for Shiomi. It is the second-to-last production that he will oversee as artistic director of Mu Performing Arts. His 20-year reign as head of the largest pan-Asian-American company between the coasts will come to an end in August 2013. Then he will be back in the freelance theater life, directing, writing and perhaps even acting.
"Before I came to Mu, I would have jobs for only a year at a time," he said. "There's risk in that but there's also growth. The company is at a very good place and I'm looking forward to getting back on the open road."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390