ArtsATL > Theater > Review: Chinese folklore comes to life with magical breaths in “Mountain Meets the Moon”

Review: Chinese folklore comes to life with magical breaths in “Mountain Meets the Moon”

Jelani Jones as the dragon (left) with Yen Nguyen. (Photos by KVC Photography)
Jelani Jones as the dragon (left) with Yen Nguyen in Synchronicity's "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon" (Photos by KVC Photography)
Jelani Jones as the dragon (left) with Yen Nguyen. (Photos by KVC Photography)

The children’s book Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin gets a fantastic and magical theatrical adaptation in Synchronicity’s latest family production, which runs at the 14th Street Playhouse through March 9.

The play, like the chapter book, is inspired by Chinese folklore and tells the story of a poor girl, Minli (Yen Nguyen), who lives with her parents in a hut at the foot of the barren Fruitless Mountain. In the evenings, her father (Matthew Myers) tells her old folktales about the dragons who once lived at the top of the mountain (their deaths caused the place to become fruitless). To improve her struggling family’s fortunes and to bring life back to Fruitless Mountain, Minli sets off on a quest to find the powerful Old Man in the Moon.

The costumes by Jonida Beqo and props and set by Mike Hickey are lovely, but simple and straightforward. Director Justin Anderson understands that the strength of the play rests on the power of storytelling. The magic on stage emerges not from huge effects or elaborate stage business, but from classic elements like masks, shadows and a talented cast taking on multiple roles.

Vince Canlas (left) with Christina Jundt in Synchronicity's "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon"
Vince Canlas (left) with Christina Jundt.

There’s an understanding of the importance and value of myth (which, not coincidentally, is also a strong theme of the story itself). Myers as Minli’s father does a fantastic job of taking on a lot of the narration, weaving together all the stories that we hear throughout Minli’s journey. Raey Kaplan as Minli’s more practical, pessimistic mother provides a lovely depiction of a character undergoing a change. Jelani Jones as the dragon that Minli meets on her quest is the friend and ally any kid would dream of having: open-hearted, boundlessly energetic, powerful and loyal.

The narrative actually consists of multiple stories within the main story, tales that end up interconnecting. It may be a difficult conceit for very young children to follow, but the interwoven stories all still work independently, and the central one has such a strong and prominent spine (its basic structure resembles The Wizard of Oz, which children never have trouble following) that even the wee ones who aren’t quite able to synthesize all the stories together will still be delighted. Familiarity with the book beforehand will help.

Jeannine Coulombe’s otherwise excellent adaptation could use a song or two — children’s stories about magic typically have songs, and they are, I think, a crucial ingredient in creating a sense of wonder and unreality — but otherwise not a thing is missing from this charming production. It’s a family show that will delight imaginative children and their parents, all of whom will be happy to find substantive and satisfying entertainment “where the mountain meets the moon.”

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