Co-directors Deborah Nishimura and Tim Dang work with Lisa Hashimoto's banner-decorated set and Guido Girardi's lights to create some visually stunning stage pictures that go largely unmatched by Joel Iwataki's music (a blend of Oriental motifs in minor key signatures, punctuated by electric-guitar riffs and other Andrew Lloyd Webberish pop stylings) and Dang's lackluster lyrics. Mostly, the characters stand around in carefully composed clusters, beautifully singing phrases such as "They think you're silly/pretending to be equal in an autocracy" and other equally snappy refrains.
The musical poses the question of what makes 100,000 picketers take to the streets at any given crossroads of history. If the spark were poverty, Nepal would have burned to the ground decades ago. If it were just the lack of opportunity, there would certainly have been rioting in Moscow by now. This is the sort of pivotal question that Beijing Spring raises, then by and large ignores. (The starry-eyed cast keep crooning about "democracy" and "freedom" and other such shopworn words of inspiration.)
True, characters complain about the official restriction of one child per family, or that, after a man was killed in a factory, his family wasn't informed of his death for 17 days. But neither these injustices, nor censorship, nor anything else raised in the play's tableaux accounts for why a slender young man would stand alone in the attempt to stop a tank in its tracks. (Between that man and that machine, now frozen in our collective photographic memory, lies the generation gap of the century.) This is a spiritual gesture, explained and diminished in the musical by political platitudes and romantic bluster.
So the media leave, the authorities crack down, and the students' lofty ideals are left in shards. But "China is awakening," the ensemble intones at play's end. Good for China. Now what about the audience?