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Theater Review: The Great Leap, Across Time and Cultures

The Great Leap, on stage at the Pasadena Playhouse, leaps across an 18-year chasm and thousands of miles in telling a compelling tale of U.S- China relations, personal and cultural identity, and basketball. At open, it’s 1989 and Manford (Justin Chien) is a 17-year-old Chinese-American who describes himself as “the most feared player in Chinatown.” Despite being well under six feet tall, he begs Saul (James Eckhouse), the coach of the official U.S. team, to let him take part in a China-U.S. match set to take place in Beijing.

Justin Chien, Christine Lin, Grant Chang and James Eckhouse in The Great Leap. Photo by Jenny Graham

Across the Pacific, a Chinese party representative, Wen Chang (Grant Chang), oversees preparation for the match. Coach Saul has been quoted as saying no Chinese team would ever beat a U.S. team and Chang has been assigned to make sure that promise is broken. He and Saul have a history dating back to 1971 and a previous U.S.-China match.

James Eckhouse and Justin Chien in The Great Leap. Photo by Jenny Graham

The characters and their relationships build slowly – sometimes if feels a little too slowly – and are colored by competitive forces deeply founded in both politics and the game itself. There are surprises that beautifully dovetail into a carefully crafted tale and an inevitable path toward Tiananmen Square, which adds yet another layer of tension to the already tense proceedings. Despite only four cast members, and only one of them a player, the basketball game generates real emotion and suspense as do the men’s personal decisions and likely consequences.

Manford’s friend Connie (Christine Lin), a UC Berkeley grad student, adds commentary and perspective. As she notes, “Every game is a second chance.”

Extensive projections enhance minimal set and props, giving the context of a San Francisco neighborhood, a bus ride through Beijing and a high-rise overlooking Tiananmen Square. At intermission, a projection on the curtain cleverly handles the U.S. team’s travel to Beijing.

BD Wong, who starred in two previous productions of The Great Leap, moves into the role of director and taps into the heart of the story. Lauren Yee, whose King of the Yees premiered at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in 2017, has crafted a depth of detail and an enduring political statement.

Co-produced by the Pasadena Playhouse and East West Players, this is the Los Angeles premiere of The Great Leap.

The Great Leap plays Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8:00pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 2:00pm through Dec. 1, 2019 at the Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave. in Pasadena. No performance on Thanksgiving. Tickets are $$29-92 here and here or call 626-356-7529. A talkback with UCLA professor Sean Metzger on Tuesday, Nov. 26 will cover the events of China’s Great Leap to the unrest at Tiananmen Square and the cultural significance.Parking is $5 in the underground lot across the street. Leave time for dinner at Trejo’s Cantina in the Pasadena Playhouse complex.


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Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen
Laura Foti Cohen has lived in the Brookside neighborhood since 1993. She works as a freelance writer, editor and consultant. She's also a playwright affiliated with Theatre West.

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