Land of Smiles

a kate west review
directed by Rick Culbertson
book, music lyrics by Erin Kamler
choreography by Kimiko Broder
at Los Angeles Theatre Center
514 S. Spring Street, Los Angeles 90013
running July 23-26, 2014
contact LATC or call 213-489-0994
website: Land of Smiles

Whether or not Thailand is still truly "The Land of Smiles" or merely another ravaged third world country cannot be debated in a day. But shedding some light on a few distraught humans may help educate westerners in the complexities of Thai politics.

Erin Kamler (best known for "Divorce! The Musical") tries to do just that with her latest show "The Land of Smiles", a musical about human trafficking (yes, you read that right). Countries like Thailand and Burma are infamous for harboring sex slave workers, yet the western perception of its inner workings may not be so black and white, something Kamler started to understand after spending a great deal of time in those regions and conducting about 50 interviews.

In the show, Lipoh (Jennie Kwan) is "rescued" from a local brothel by the NGO (non-governmental organization) and aided by an idealistic case worker from Indiana, Emma Gable (Amanda Kruger). Gable soon realizes however, that Lipoh does not see herself as a victim, but rather a dutiful daughter doing what she can to help her war-torn village and her family.

Soon Nu (Kerry K. Carnahan) and Nono (Yardpirun Poolun) are a two-women chorus representing Lipoh's Auntie, her Madam, her fellow brothel worker and her mother, among others. They drift in and out, as the story goes back and forth, showing us glimpses of agonizing past decisions and anxiety-ridden futures. Meanwhile, Gable's office workers, Lewelyn Brand (Ann Fink) and Achara Montri (Ren Hanami) push her to get answers, fill quotas and urge her to "fix" Lipoh as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, the complex lives of the girls are not so easily fixed and even in the office the two conflicting viewpoints, Christian (Brand) and Buddhist (Montri) give Gable a headache.

Indeed, a visit to a local brothel shows Emma Gable that not all prostitutes are unwilling and that maybe more time and more investigating needs to trump any quick fix. Carnahan and Poolun demonstrate this quite well singing "Women Power" as confident ladies of the night, advising Gable to find the legitimate sufferers (it's one of the show stoppers). Amanda Kruger sweetly sings the plaintive "I'm Sure Indiana is Fine" as she realizes that merely signing a check and going back to our American lives is not enough to help these women.

Erin Kamler once again shows her versatility and creativity with skillful lyric writing and a passionate story. The music works well with the story and the actors make natural transitions when bursting into song. Kimiko Broder's choreography and Rick Culbertson's direction bind Kamler's work into a thought-provoking piece. Jennie Kwan and Amanda Kruger are the standout stars, while Yardpirun Poolun combines comic relief with passionate sensuality as an audience favorite.

The show has been cut for time, to trim it down for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival so this particular week of previews don't expect the same show twice. Just let the artists tinker as they may and enjoy the music. Wouldn't hurt to spend a little time soul searching as well.

See it before "Land of Smiles" hits the Fringe Festival.

See previous review here. Check out Erin's websites here and here and the Fringe info here.

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