"Holy smokes, it's the story of my life," I thought during the first act of Homeland, Jay Kuo's terrific new musical, which has been workshopped at the New Conservatory Theatre and arrived as a semi-staged production at the Magic Theatre over the weekend.
A followup to his successful romantic comedy, Insignificant Others, Homeland finds Kuo again mining the local landscape and coming up with a gem of a bittersweet tale about love blooming in the rarefied world of San Francisco.
It's a curious thing that happens quite often in the Bay Area -- a place where I'm startled if I run into a bona fide, born-and-bred local. No matter where we're from though, somehow we all wind up discovering "families" for ourselves. You know the family I mean -- the one with your crazy left wing activist friend, the struggling artist you met in a coffee shop, your wild and crazy, newly-freed-from-the-closet pal, and various interesting and probably left-leaning others. Kuo has built Homeland around just such an extended family, in this case, a loosely-banded guerilla street theater group. As a love story and a tale of the divisive politics of this current generation, it will no doubt connect to audiences at many levels, but for the Bay Area crowd, it will be doubly poignant, because it tells the stories of the people that you and I know -- maybe even the stories of our own lives. And as with all the best musicals, the circumstances in which our heroes find themselves might be farcical, even far-fetched, but it doesn't matter at all, because the characters ring true.
The action splits between San Francisco and Lubbock, Texas, but the heart of Homeland centers around the winsome Yilin Hsu and Luke Klipp as Rose and J.D, two transplants to San Francisco whose romance is buffeted by family expectations, politics, racism and circumstance. Rose's brother Lincoln (Austin Ku), has his own romance with the gently sarcastic Tennessee (Jason Hoover) and faces up to the struggle of coming out to his mother -- played with hilarious, often touching grace by Lily Tung. In a part of America miles apart geographically and ideologically, J.D.'s mom, Trudy, played with heartfelt simplicity by Kelly Ground, has fallen in with an Operation Rescue, "Flip" Benham-type preacher (Brandon Mears). It's a complex interplay between all these personalities, ideas and prejudices that drives the action. How easy it is, after a few years in the Bay Area, to forget that elsewhere in America, people don't see politics or life as we do here. It seemed to take a moment for the crowd at the Magic to register the fact that a romance between a Korean woman and a guy from Texas might be problematic, or to recall that there are places where people still think sushi is a queer thing.
Homeland is an ambitious undertaking and packs a lot of commentary into a musical framework. Besides the love story, Kuo works extensive political ground from abortion rights to animal rights, from racism to fanaticism, albeit wearing decidedly blue colors on his political sleeve. Still, he dots the evening with catchy tunes and bon mots aplenty. Sweetly romantic duets like "All That We Know" and punchy production numbers like "Something in the Key of D" -- a kind of cabaret riff on musical theater staples like Phantom of the Opera, and The King & I -- show off an uncommonly confident stride.
The twelve performers -- including Erin Diamantides as the left wing radical Eleanor, as well as William Brown III, Sean Grady, Mary Kalita and Nancy Dobbs Owen -- make for a strong cast, forging ahead with vivacious energy, even if they are forced to sing to recorded music. Nevertheless, director George Quick has provided a clean, theatrical staging, and in a way -- although I know it's only meant to be a bare-bones workshop production -- I enjoyed the way the spareness threw the characters into high relief.
For the last three or four numbers, unabashed sentimentalism and sniffles dominated the audience -- most of us had gone to pieces by the time we got to Lincoln and Tennessee's "You've Got Me." That's when the real kicker hits: this musical isn't really about politics or immigration or freeing lab rats or blockading abortion clinics. It's about the things we allow to push and shove us into making decisions. It's about hopes and expectations -- and Homeland exceeds them.
Homeland continues through December 19 at the Magic Theatre. Catch it if you can, and bring tissues with you. But if you miss it, keep your eyes peeled -- a show this good is more than likely to be picked up and put onstage for a well-deserved long run.