The gloriously realised set of Single Asian Female is visible before the show begins – rows of beautiful lanterns glowing behind a luminous neon sign for the Golden Phoenix Cafe, the biggest example of the rich red that permeates the set.
Then once the lights dim, the sign transforms into a karaoke machine, and we are introduced to our heroine Pearl belting out I Will Survive in broken English, drawing the audience into her story with a boisterous, bitter monologue sang to the tune of Gloria Gaynor's hit.
It's an uproarious opening that sets the scene for the next two and a half hours of Auckland Theatre Company's latest. Director Cassandra Tse has adapted Michelle Law's Australian hit about a Chinese immigrant family, taking it from the Gold Coast to Mount Maunganui to tell a universal story about identity and immigration.
Single Asian Female is also the first ATC show to feature three New Zealand-Chinese leads. Much has been made of this moment, most of it by people better suited than I to comment on the company's diversity track record, but it's pleasing to see the city's largest theatre company continue to diversify its programme and work openly with minority-focused companies (Proudly Asian Theatre in this case).
And they've chosen a broadly appealing crowdpleaser for their first foray in this direction. Kat Tsz Hung stars as Pearl, a migrant from Hong Kong who has recently split from her cheating husband and has been left to run their restaurant alone. Financially strapped, she sells the family's apartment in Auckland, forcing high achieving violinist Zoe (Xana Tang) home, forced to share a room with younger sister Mei (Bridget Wong), who's struggling with her own identity in the lead-up to her school formal.
The production is exquisitely executed. Tse, alongside set designer Rachel Walker and lighting designer Rachel Marlow, have crafted a gorgeously realised world inhabited by the excellent cast, centred by the remarkable chemistry between the three leads.
Tang and Wong elevate their characters and clearly have big things ahead of them, but it's Hung who dominates the show as the caring but frustrating and wounded Pearl. With flawless comic timing matched by a quiet intensity, she perfectly embodies the two sides of writer Michelle Law's script.
It's easy to see why ATC choose this script. It has the right blend of comedy and drama and fits perfectly in a New Zealand context. Yet as enjoyable as Single Asian Female may be, with sharp dialogue and finely tuned home truths, it's hard to fully settle into the story.
The safe first act relies heavily on the comedy, skirting around the unspoken pain while teasing what's ahead in a way that sparks curiosity rather than investment. It doesn't adequately set up the powerful conclusion, which relies heavily on the powerful performances from the leads to work.
It's a sequence that highlights the importance of a company of ATC's size staging shows like this: as moved as I was by Pearl's story, I did not have the same emotional connection my Vietnamese-Chinese friend, who was in tears for the last half hour, had – though the people behind us who tittered about flight numbers for much of the climax suggest not every audience member was onboard.
While it may have its flaws – the ending in particular dragged on before doubling back for a happy ending – Single Asian Female rarely ceases to be entertaining, and will likely appeal to both the ATC's loyal audience as well as attracting those not used to seeing their stories on a stage of this size. Past works show they can tell bolder, locally grown pieces, and Single Asian Female is an overall enjoyable effort that should lay the groundwork for more challenging theatre in future programmes.
What: Single Asian Theatre, Auckland Theatre Company
Where: ASB Waterfront Theatre, until May 15th