Review: Legacy of the Tiger Mother
by Joy Ding
Whether you are fortunate/unfortunate enough to have your own tiger mother, or simply curious about what it’s like to have one, you’ll find plenty to satisfy you in Legacy of the Tiger Mother, a semi-autobiographical two-woman musical written by Angela Chang. In Legacy, we meet Lily (Satomi Hoffman), a first-generation Asian immigrant and her daughter Mei (Lynn Craig), a second-generation Asian-American, and get to witness the thirty-something years of their tumultuous relationship with each other, and the piano.
If you’re looking for music, Legacy fulfills its identity as a musical in more than one way. Not only are there Broadway-worthy songs such as the crowd-pleaser “Lazy White Children,” and heart-wrenching duet “Something Better,” we also get the pleasure of listening to Mei’s progression on the piano as she grows up. Chang, who plays the piano from off-stage, fully captures the full progression of Mei’s piano ability, from the stumbles and missed notes of a beginner playing Mozart’s variations on Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to the more difficult pieces Mei plays as she gains confidence and ability.
Actors Satomi Hoffman and Lynn Craig exhibit remarkable range in Legacy, under the direction of Lysander Abadia. Craig does an admirable job of portraying Mei at each age level. While the initial whininess of a young Mei is off-putting and hard to believe in “Suzuki Prayer,” by the time she sings “Little Miss 1986,” Mei has become more realistic. Paired with the wistful refrain of Little Miss 1986, a refrain strong enough to bring anyone back to childhood and the feeling of being excluded and unpopular, Craig’s breathy treatment of the song is delightful. You’d swear Craig were a metal-mouthed schoolgirl, just back from a braces retightening. Hoffmann, as Mei’s mother, captures the many facets of Lily, whether it is her fierceness and authority, her unabashed opinions about parenting and other people’s children, or her instances of uncertainty in private, when she does not have to maintain an impenetrable veneer of strength for Mei. Hoffmann is also a master of the small gesture; for instance, some cringe-worthy rhymes in “Letting Go” are all forgiven for the one transcendent moment at the end, when Lily grasps the piano and sings “she’ll always be our little girl.” In that one movement we see Lily views the piano as a partner in raising Mei, not a mere object.
Legacy, however, does fail itself in certain moments when it repeats stereotypical comedic material for easy laughs. For instance, any of the times Lily sees fit to intone a Confucian saying (“Confucius say…”), I felt my heart sag. Or, when Mei threatens a too-loud Lily by saying, “Ma, don’t make me smack you with my chopsticks.” Yes, one could argue that these moments are covered by Legacy’s billing as “a slightly exaggerated story,” but these particular exaggerations are also neither novel nor interesting. In a musical that succeeds on the strength of Chang’s ability to recreate the truth of her experience for others by creating a fictional narrative, these moments of forced humor stand out as moments of falseness.
In contrast, at the end of the musical, Lily and Mei get to have a resolution that is as emotionally resonant, truthful, and satisfying as any I’ve seen on stage. They start out bickering about their differing approaches toward parenting and end in a furious, tumultuous argument with the highest stakes possible: whether Lily has ever loved Mei. Mei contends that Lily was happy to get rid of her, citing Lily’s selling of the piano as soon as Mei left for college. Shocked, and teary-eyed, Lily tells Mei that she sold the piano because she couldn’t bear it that Mei was no longer around to play it. And the perfection of that moment of understanding, and then the moment afterwards, when Lily reaches toward Mei and you think she’s going to take Mei’s hand, but instead, she wraps her own arm around Mei’s arm — the awkward affectionate gesture of a mother and daughter who don’t touch much – is painfully recognizable. It is a gesture that I recognized with heart-breaking clarity as one that my mother has used when she’s feeling particularly emotional about being a mother, like this spring, at the end of Brave. My mother left the theatre saying: “That’s just who I am. The bear-mom who would do anything for her children.”
So, does Legacy of the Tiger Mother succeed?
Well, judging by the amount of happy people at the end of the show – some relating stories of their own childhoods, others laughing about the lyrics in “Lazy White Children,” and, yes, several Asian and Asian American mother-daughter duos walking arm-in-arm to the exit – resoundingly yes. In fact, I wish my own mother had been there to watch it with me.
This reviewer applauds the Legacy team for bringing this story to the stage, and looks forward to seeing more work from Angela Chang.
Joy Ding is a freelance writer, editor and marketer living in San Francisco. She might start playing the piano again after watching this performance.