Performing in "The Ballad of Mu Lan," from left: Claire Kwon as Emperor/Xiu Qie, Jonyca Jiao as Mu Lan and Kristen Waagner as Huan Hu/Jin Yong. (Justin Barber, photographer)

Imagine U’s production of “The Ballad of Mu Lan,” the classic Chinese folk tale of a young woman who masquerades as a man to save her elderly father’s life by taking his place in the army and battling invaders, is a modern update that breathes new life into a classic – but dusty – tale.

The original story dates from the sixth century and has been told countless times since, including two exorbitant versions by the Walt Disney Co., but this version is innovative, empowering and educational for both children and the adults accompanying them.

Presented by an all-female cast of Asian Americans, the production shimmers with energetic singing, dancing and swordplay. The show is 80 minutes long without an intermission, and proceeds at a pace certain to hold a child’s attention. Children five and older will be captivated. The show notes promote “The Ballad of Mu Lan” as relevant for children in grades four through eight.

The production, written and directed by Alvin Chan, consciously alters traditional outlooks on gender. Chan noted, “It is a woman’s story, and the woman doesn’t always need a man to save her at the end.” Themes of family, friendship and “girl power’” resonate right from the start, along with Mu Lan’s struggle with her self-confidence.

The full theatrical experience starts as soon as one enters the lobby. A large cutout of Mu Lan is conveniently positioned to encourage family photographs and selfies. A handout is available with guiding questions so younger audience members can know a bit about Jingu, or Beijing opera, a traditional style of Chinese theater. On one lobby wall, sticky notes and pencils await so audience members can write in the name of their own favorite woman “warrior,” a strong role model whom they admire.

The talented actors take the stage with vibrantly colored silky costumes, exaggerated makeup and enunciated movements punctuated with drumbeats. The set backdrop on stage is colorful and feels like a traditional Chinese painting come to life. The action that propels the story forward is lighthearted with plenty of comic moments, and never veers off into anything too heavy or serious.

On opening night, current events intruded on stage. The first scene unfolds as army commanders clamor and sing about the need for “more men” to hold off the invasion unfolding around them. In order to save the country, the Emperor decrees that every family throughout the land must contribute one male to join the army. Mu Lan will not stand by to have her elderly father conscripted, and decides to go in his place, leaving quickly and without saying goodbye so he won’t try to stop her. With a sweeping “thwack” from her sword, she slices off the bulk of her long, elegant dark hair, leaving the remnant of her ponytail on the floor along with her pre-army clothes. Watching this scene and hearing the actors speak words like invasion, army and “save the country,” it was impossible not to think of Ukraine.

“The Ballad of Mu Lan” is on the stage at the Wirtz Center for the Performing Arts Feb. 24-27 and March 4-6. Purchase tickets online or go to the Wirtz Center Box Office in the Barber Theater lobby at 30 Arts Circle Drive between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 4 p.m. on Saturday.

Wendi Kromash

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...

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