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STAGE REVIEW : East West's 'Canton Jazz Club' Evokes '40s With Panache


Personal criticism, as opposed to aesthetic distance, usually gets a critic in trouble. But sometimes there's no other way to go. "Canton Jazz Club" at the East West Players, big sprawling mess that it is, captivated me.

It is a musical about a glamorous hot spot in L.A.'s Chinatown in 1943. When I was kid in the early '40s, my mother's favorite movie was "Limehouse Blues," with George Raft (as an Oriental roustabout) and Anna Mae Wong. I was dragged to this movie half-a-dozen times and the routine that followed was a trip to a subterranean nightclub in L.A.'s Chinatown.

For a 10-year-old Anglo boy, it was a heady experience. The music was swing, the men sleek, the women unbelievably gorgeous. So, decades later, "Canton Jazz Club" hits me with the force of a hammer. It's my club. It's also anyone's club who was influenced by the stereotyping in Charlie Chan movies and Hollywood's portrayal of smoky dens of iniquity.

The book by Dom Magwili is unfocused, riddled with steamy subplots and an obligatory murder, but Magwili does skewer racist myths in a minority culture.

The club's emcee and even the film noirish -narrator are not who they seem but frustrated Shakespearean actors. A Chinese dancer at the club lands a movie role on condition she change her name to Anna Mae Fong. And the scalding ethnic insults hurled by an Irish gangster drew gasps from the audience and serve to remind us that this is not only World War II but L.A. as an ugly melting pot.

"Canton Jazz Club" desperately needs trimming but the floor shows are its spice. Nathan Wang and Joel Iwataki's original score (performed live) is evocative and deliciously interspersed with a vocal quartet that breaks into Manhattan Transfer-like harmonies.

Director-choreographer-lyricist Tim Dang's staging and the panache of a vibrant 17-member cast--led by Robert Ito's love-smitten gumshoe and Ren Hanami and Sekiya Billman's star-crossed chorines--create a definable, tongue-in-cheek world. Terence Tam Soon and Rodney Kageyama's florid showgirl costumes, Gronk's nightclub and dressing room set, and Jose Lopez's lighting contribute to an ambitious show.

"Canton Jazz Club," East West Players, 4424 Santa Monica Blvd., Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m., Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends June 2. $20-$22. (213) 660-0366. Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes.

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