“Interstate,” an entry at the New York Musical Festival, is about two New Yorkers who form a band called Queer Malady and tour the country: Dash is a Chinese-born trans man and spoken word poet; Adrian is an Asian-American lesbian who is a gifted composer and guitarist. The show is written by Kit Yan, a Chinese-born trans man and spoken word poet, and Melissa Li, an Asian-American lesbian who is a composer and guitarist; the two formed a band called Good Asian Drivers and toured the country.
Given how straightforwardly autobiographical “Interstate” seems to be, a theatergoer might be at least momentarily taken aback when the musical duo is shown to have adoring fans: “The band is unflinchingly vocal about heterosexism…white privilege…transphobia in the queer community…and racism,” we see ensemble members as fans say on their computers, their faces glowing. But “Interstate” is as much the story of one fan in particular, a 16-year-old South Asian in Kentucky who, inspired by Queer Malady, comes out as a trans man on a YouTube video blog, changing their name from Priya to Henry. And Henry, as performed by Sushma Saha, helps make “Interstate” something far more wonderful than a vanity project. Hearing Saha sing an addictively animated song called “I Don’t Look,” about Henry’s crush on a classmate , with its thrilling “I Don’t Look/Oooh Oooh Ooooh” refrain, is almost by itself enough to make “Interstate” worthwhile.
Here is composer Melissa Li performing the song:
Saha as Henry, Jon Viktor Corpuz (The King and I on Broadway) as Dash and Angel Lin as Adrian, along with a talented ensemble, expertly deliver the 15 Yan/Li songs, which are a pleasing mix of lyrical pop songs and hard-charging rock, with lyrics that are variously clever, graceful or blunt. The angrily worded song/spoken word poem “White Eyes,” is in response to some bigoted cat-calling on the street:
I’m not your boy,
Not your buddy
I’m not your dude
I’m not your dumpling,
…I will no longer bow to you,
…I’ll never forget what my family’s been through
The railroad tracks we’ve broken backs to lay, The decades of work for zero pay,
The workers humiliated and slaughtered,
The early mothers sold as daughters,
So fuck you
The strength of the songs more or less makes up for the plot, which needs work. There are stabs at creating dramatic conflict for Adrian and Dash, some of which are effective, but much of which feels like filler. Dash and Adrian each has a series of (often amusing) conversations with their respective parents. Her mother expects her to go to law school. His father, who has adjusted to his gender change, encourages him to act like a man. Adrian talks to a record company executive, who dangles a recording contract, but eventually reveals she’s just offering a solo contract. (“A trans spoken word artist is a really hard sell right now. The world isn’t ready for a Dash. But you, an Asian-American lesbian pop-rocker? You can top the charts.”) Dash and Adrian struggle through their relationship, complicated by Dash’s increasing realization that he is drawn to Adrian in ways that are not reciprocated.
Overlaying all of this is their career ambitions, which the audience is apparently expected to care about. This self-absorption comes at a cost. At the outset of “Interstate,” Dash and Adrian sing about all the cities they’re about to visit and the food they’ll be eating; even its clever pun of a title promises an American road trip musical full of discovery. But “Interstate” doesn’t give Adrian or Dash much opportunity to discover America or Americans. The few people they meet while on the road are trolls or rednecks, or at best clueless, such as a radio interviewer named Chad in Minneapolis (in a hilarious impersonation by ensemble member Andreas Wyder of a laid-back public radio personality.)
At one point, Dash and Adrian have a nasty encounter in what Arian tells us is “a straight white bar in the middle of nowhere,” which they think might be South Dakota. The mention of “South Dakota” brought to mind another road trip musical, which was on stage at the Public Theater earlier this year, and which offers a telling contrast.
“ Miss You Like Hell,” a musical by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Erin McKeown, presented a series of adventures and misadventures involving people whom the two central characters, the mother/daughter Beatriz and Olivia, meet on the road. Olivia and Beatriz wind up in South Dakota too, and, yes, some of the characters they meet there are unpleasant – they are in the state to argue a case before an unfriendly judge. But while in South Dakota they also meet a tamale vendor named Manuel there, who becomes Beatriz’s lover.
Perhaps Yan and Li really did encounter only yahoos in their trek through Trumpland, but presenting the heartland as nothing more than a wasteland, only valuable as a career opportunity for Adrian and Dash, makes for a less generous/inclusive musical than I suspect the creative team truly wants.
Luckily and smartly, “Interstate” offers a more generous mix of discovery and self-discovery in the alternating story of Henry’s journey, which is largely emotional rather than geographic – Henry’s coming out, dealing with harassment in school and church, proclaiming their attraction to their crush, buying black-market testosterone. At the end of “Interstate,” Henry takes an actual journey as well – to San Francisco, to attend the last concert on the tour by Queer Malady, which changes Henry’s life.
In one song in “Interstate,” Dash sings: “Our tour is for the one kid who fears humiliation, who’s queer and also Asian. That’s the kid for whom we play…” We meet that kid in Henry, and that makes all the difference.
“Interstate”is on stage at Theatre Row as part of the New Musical Festival. Remaining showtimes: today (July 15) at 1 and 5 p.m.