West Side Story Staging in China Inspires Solo Show, The Soup Comes Last, Making NYC Premiere Sept. 29

By Kenneth Jones
23 Sep 2004

The Soup Comes Last, a new solo play about the mounting of a Chinese-cast West Side Story near Beijing, gets its Manhattan debut Sept. 29-Oct. 24 following its development by The Kitchen Theatre Company in Ithaca, New York.



Rachel Lampert, the Kitchen's artistic producing director, has been presenting and polishing the work on her upstate turf since 1998, most recently in a run July 6-Aug. 14 under the direction of Karen Azenberg, at the Kitchen.

The Off-Broadway sitdown, again directed by Azenberg, is presented by Kitchen Theatre Company in association with Michael Carson at the beehive of intimate spaces known as 59E59 Theaters, at 59 E. 59th Street. Opening is set for Oct. 4.

The Soup Comes Last tells the 1997 adventure of Lampert serving as choreographer of a Chinese student company of the Leonard Bernstein-Arthur Laurents Stephen Sondheim musical, West Side Story. The two-act seriocomic Soup explores various aspects of experience: the tension between the open-minded Lampert and the salty British South African director, Joanne Gordon; the clash of cultures ("Is it culturally insensitive for the Jet Girls to wear blonde wigs?"); the academic bureaucracy involved in mounting the show at a school outside Beijing; and the relationships between the Western creative duo and the Chinese translator and one teen-age dancer. Lampert plays 11 characters.

"I was so happy to be in a place that's so Chinese," Lampert told Playbill On-Line over the summer. "We really got a picture of China that most people wouldn't have gotten if they'd been in the big city."

At heart, Lampert said, the play is a show biz fable that asks, "Will the show go on?"

But over the years the piece has also evolved from being about West Side Story in China (a theatre tale) to focusing on the people Western and Chinese who put it together (a human tale).

The show does not incorporate music from West Side Story.

"When I went over, I brought with me a little tape recorder that I could speak into every night," Lampert explained. "I kept a taped diary of what happened I thought this would be interesting material, maybe I would write about it. I read Arthur Miller's wonderful book, 'Salesman in Beijing,' while I was in China. He was there [with Death of a Salesman] 10 years before us, dealing with the same kind of difficulty in cultural understanding. When I got back and I listened to all these tapes, I realized I wanted to tell this story. I started first writing it in book form, and then it seemed because I'd done a couple of other one-person performance pieces for myself the stage was the best place for it."

The title, The Soup Comes Last, refers to the Western convention of soup served before a meal, acting as a metaphor for Western expectations being thwarted.

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Brooklyn native Lampert has been working in theatre and dance for the past 28 years. This is the sixth year she has served as artistic director of the Kitchen Theatre Company. Her work as a playwright at the Kitchen includes plays for young people (A December Suite, the Emmett & Hambone series and The Sisters Fitzenstarts) and three Main Stage productions (Waltz, The Soup Comes Last and The Lampert Variations). She directed Talley's Folly, Stop Kiss, A Delicate Balance, Falsettos, Our Town, Who's Afraid of Virgnia Woolf? and Desdemona, a play about a handkerchief.

She adapted The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore and The Mikado for the Saturday Morning Live & Two Sundays, Too! series and premiered Fools! Schmools! and Waltz. Her most recent plays are Frankenstein and The Book Club.

From 1976-1990 she toured extensively with her company Rachel Lampert & Dancers, throughout the U.S. and in Europe appearing on major dance festivals and in annual New York City seasons.

Karen Azenberg choreographed the Roundabout Theatre's The Dazzle by Richard Greenberg, directed the cult hit Prom Queens Unchained and Blocks by Jonathan Larson. She received the Dramalogue Award for outstanding choreography for West Side Story (Opera Pacific) and a Joseph Jefferson Award nomination for Hello, Dolly! at Chicago's Marriott Lincolnshire.

Performances of The Soup Comes Last are Wednesdays at 2 PM and 8 PM, Thursdays and Fridays at 8 PM, Saturdays at 2 PM and 8PM, and Sundays at 3 PM. Tickets are $30. For information, call (212) 279-4200 or at www.ticketcentral.com.

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The 73-seat Kitchen has been offering contemporary works (A Perfect Ganesh, The Cripple of Inishmaan and world premieres) for more than a decade in Ithaca. For more information, visit www.kitchentheatre.org.