ALAMEDA -- An encounter with a fairy tale in third grade had a lasting impression on Alameda playwright Min Kahng. "It was 'The Song of the Nightingale,' and it stuck with me because it's not only a wonderful tale, but it also has Asian characters," Kahng said.
Now in his early 30s, the multi-talented playwright and composer will premiere his musical version of the little brown bird that transforms the entire kingdom of China with her song on Oct. 11 at the Altarena Playhouse.
"We did a staged reading of the musical in 2010 at the Frederick L. Chacon Little Theatre at Alameda High School and had a great response," Kahng said. "I'm very thankful and humbled that the Altarena board felt the show worked well for their 75th anniversary season."
Based on a beloved Hans Christian Andersen tale, "The Song of the Nightingale" tells the story of an emperor of China who is unaware of the beautiful nightingale that sings in his land. The only palace worker who knows of the bird is Mei Lin, a lowly kitchen maid who hopes to move up in the palace. When the emperor requests that Mei Lin help him locate the nightingale in exchange for a lofty promotion, she is only too happy to oblige. This transaction, however, brings about tragic consequences as the emperor and others in the palace fail to see the nightingale's true beauty, judging her only by her plain outer appearance.
Christina Lazo, who has directed such hits as "Chicago," "The Rocky Horror Show," and "Spring Awakening" at the Altarena, directs "The Song of the Nightingale." A teacher at Alameda's Dance 10 Performing Arts Center, Lazo will share choreography duties with Deedra Wong, who also plays the nightingale.
"The story is so beautiful, the music so gorgeous, and it's so exciting to be working at this level," Lazo said.
Lazo also directed the 2010 workshop performance of Kahng's new work. "It's changed quite a bit since the reading," she said. "Min has tweaked the plot line some and added new music. It's really intriguing to work on a brand new piece and to work directly with the author. If I'm having trouble with a transition, I can just ask him what he was thinking. Or if something isn't working, we'll talk about it, and the next day, there will be a new page of dialogue."
Kahng also enjoys the workshop atmosphere in rehearsals.
"We've been fortunate to have Christina and many of the actors from the reading continue with the show," he explained. "They've gotten to know the characters in a different way than I do as the playwright and have come up with all kinds of ideas. It's been fun working so collaboratively as we ready the show for its world premiere."
According to Kahng, both he and Lazo are "very time efficient." That certainly proved useful when an injured cast member needed replaced two weeks before opening and when Kahng had to take over as musical director. "Luckily, I don't have to conduct and can just enjoy the show when we open," he added.
When "The Song of the Nightingale" opens on Oct. 11, Kahng will shift his creative energy to his next work, a musical adaptation of Grace Lin's "Where the Mountain Meets the Moon," which was commissioned by Bay Area Children's Theatre for a February 2014 premiere. The up and coming young playwright has also been accepted into Theatre Bay Area's Atlas Program, which helps promising artists realize their goals.
"The Song of the Nightingale" runs Oct. 11 through Nov. 17 at the Altarena Playhouse, 1409 High St., Alameda. For tickets, call 510-523-1553 or go to www.altarena.org.