Imagine being transported from downtown Washington, DC (and one of our country’s greatest cultural institutions) to New York City then to China and yet again to another dimension. The world premiere of “The Dragon King’s Daughter,” with book and music by Marcus Yi, does that and more in an imaginative, important, and fantastic musical commissioned by Kennedy Center.
…world premiere…imaginative, important and fantastic…Catch it while you can!
It tells the story of Kenny Li (Jonny Lee Jr.), a teenager who is bullied at school. You see its impact on him as opening scenes show him not wanting to go to school and, in another moment, being stuffed in a dumpster. It is at this point—literally down in the dumps—that Kenny finds a tablet and goes on his own journey to the alternate dimension of the Jade Kingdom.
The Kingdom is ruled by the Dragon King (Eymard Cabling) whose daughter, Xing (Michelle Cabinian), is on a quest to save mankind. She agrees to team with Kenny. Following some initial reluctance about her human counterpart, she teaches him life lessons along the way as they uncover the power to help them succeed. It is a world of treacherous pandas, sea urchins, and blue-haired heroines—and also a world where Kenny learns the power of being himself in the face of adversity.
The story, particularly in the Jade Kingdom, aptly has a video-game feel as characters get “vanquished” and more. What is also true is while the youngest audience members may not follow this whole story, it is central to a wonderfully entertaining production.
“The Dragon King’s Daughter” was developed as part of the New Victory LabWorks at New York City’s New Victory Theater, powered by New 42. Established in 2012, LabWorks supports New York City-based artists of color who create original work for kids and families. Credit the Kennedy Center for its investment in a children’s show about a different culture, with a diverse cast and crew, amidst the institution’s ongoing commitment to the arts.
This extensive development behind this piece shows, with high production values. Yi’s songs, and especially the opening number “I’m Fine, I’m Fine!” feature impressive choreography by Billy Bustamante with music that will stick in your head long after the curtain falls. Director Chongren Fan effectively oversees it all, which is no small feat for this complex, new work geared toward younger audiences.
The actors do well with it all. Lee Jr. is incredibly charismatic on stage and handles the dance moves with aplomb (including a Michael Jackson-esque moonwalk in a dance competition). He is also a talented actor, subtly showing teenage angst. As Xing, Michelle Cabinian has a gorgeous voice that provides balance to Lee Jr.’s youthful and energetic role. Her “See You Again” is filled with beautiful tones. The rest of the cast is also quite good, including Cabling as the Dragon King and Sally Imbriano as the wonderfully funny Auntie Qin, along with Leo Yu-Ning Chang and Quynh-My-Luu.
This production also features an impressive set behind the actors. The team of scenic designer You-Shin Chen, lighting designer Venus Gulbranson, and projections designer Patrick Lord has crafted a gorgeous backdrop that transports you throughout the Jade Kingdom. This is often facilitated by the central archway in Chen’s stage, with dragon imagery projected behind it, with different settings in it. This piece feels authentic and it is moving—literally and metaphorically—as the show journeys between urban and rural settings, pulling you into this alternate dimension.
“The Dragon King’s Daughter” is fast-paced and quality children’s theater that teaches about how you can learn empowerment in the face of adversity. The DC region has a variety of options for children’s theater, but this world premiere felt a bit different as you walked away. Catch it while you can!
Running Time: One hour and 10 minutes with no intermission.
Advisory: Most enjoyed by ages 7+.
“The Dragon King’s Daughter” runs through December 17, 2023 at the Kennedy Center’s Family Theater, 2700 F Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20566. Performances are Saturdays and Sundays at 1:30 and 5 pm. Tickets are $20-$25 and available in-person at the Box Office, by calling 202-467-4600, and online.