Grace Lin’s captivating “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” is a potent blend of fantasy, Chinese folklore, and heroic adventure. On the Wheelock Family Theatre stage, the book’s theatrical adaptation combines vivid imagery with simple storytelling for an enchanting journey from Fruitless Mountain to the village of Bright Moonlight and back again.
Lin’s chapter book, which is geared to readers ages 8 to 12, weaves multiple traditional Chinese themes and characters into the main story line, which focuses on young Minli (Caroline Workman) and her quest to improve her family’s fortune. While managing all of the stories might create staging challenges, director Jane Staab and her production team make some very low-tech choices that have a powerful dramatic impact.
Choreographer Laurel Conrad and costume designer Melissa Miller collaborate on particularly winning costumes and movement that suggest the wind and rain and a silvery and graceful Old Man of the Moon, not to mention a greedy pack of monkeys.
Adapter Jeannine Coulombe uses selective narration to link the different stories, and Staab takes advantage of the opportunity to position various members of her ensemble in different areas of the stage to deliver key transitions and bits of exposition. The effect is one of constant movement, making it easy for the audience to follow Minli from her desperately poor home to the sky where the Jade Dragon and her children control the rain.
At the heart of “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” is the power of storytelling. The play opens with children gathering around a storyteller, asking for the chance to play different roles in the tales. The storyteller soon morphs into Minli’s father, Ba (Michael Tow), whose tales feed Minli’s imagination even when there’s little rice to feed the family.
Minli’s Ma (Grace Napier) scoffs at Ba’s impractical stories and bemoans the family’s lack of money, inspiring Minli to spend one of the only two coins she has on a goldfish the seller promises will bring good fortune.
Following the fish’s instructions, Minli heads out on a quest to find the Old Man of the Moon who knows the secret of good fortune and ties everyone’s destiny together with string. Along the way, Minli meets a variety of characters, including an orphan boy (Sebastian Wood), a vindictive Magistrate Tiger (Bill Mootos), and most importantly, a flightless dragon (Stewart Evan Smith) who becomes Minli’s ally and best friend.
While the collection of folk tales spans time and space, and the parade of characters can feel a bit confusing at times, especially for the younger audience members, Workman and Smith’s chemistry helps to keep the audience focused. As the flightless dragon, Smith is endlessly enthusiastic, giggling with delight at whatever he and Minli encounter, and the friendship between the young girl and the dragon unfolds naturally and believably.
Matthew T. Lazure’s tiered moonlit set and Dewey Dellay’s atmospheric music help make the many transitions easy to follow.
While the book focused primarily on Minli’s quest, the stage adaptation opens up to the many people whose lives Minli touches. “Where the Mountain Meets the Moon” celebrates the importance of family, from Ma and Ba to the larger communities Minli encounters.