For many, the story of Hua Mulan (or Mulan for short) is familiar only or mostly from the 1988 Disney movie.
The legend is considerably older. It was first transcribed in a 6th-century Chinese poem by an unknown author; the first extant text comes from an anthology a few centuries later.
Now Imagination Stage is presenting “The Ballad of Mu Lan,” minus the talking dragon and a full-fledged romance, but with the same basic plot. In addition, the production is more embedded in Chinese culture, said Director Alvin Chan, who wrote the Imagination Stage adaptation.
Mulan frets when one male from each family is called upon to defend China from invaders. Her father is old and weak, and her younger brother is just a child, so Mulan – skilled in martial arts, sword fighting and archery – decides to take their place and enlists. She fights for 12 years, before resuming her old life.
Mulan in this adaptation becomes a general, the highest-ranking officer in the army. There is a love interest, Chan said, but it is kind of “inconsequential.”
A Chinese American, Chan was inspired by the Beijing Opera, whose productions he both observed and participated in as part of a fellowship program.
“It’s so different from Western opera,” Chan said. “It uses dance, acrobatics, singing, acting and speech. It’s a synthesis of everything.”
It is not easy to get such versatile performers for such a performance, he admitted. “But I’m lucky. We have a dextrous and hard-working cast. I’m asking so much more of them than in a regular musical.”
One demand specific to the title role is the actor must, at different times, suggest the different physicality of men and women.
Chan added that he was grateful Janet Stanford, Imagination Stage’s artistic director, also expressed a desire to do a “true-to-form version” of Mulan with a better representation of Chinese culture.
“Janet likes to go back to the original (versions), changing things only if we have to,” he said. “Ours is a version of the story a lot of Americans aren’t used to seeing.”
Justine “Icy” Moral, who plays Mu Lan, is the only woman in the cast. Chan said he could not ask for anyone more capable as she is able to sing and excels at evoking both gender styles. She caught his attention after her signing performance as Ariel in “The Little Mermaid.”
Moral, who admits loving the Disney version and the story in general, points out that Mu Lan goes to the army not just to save her father but because she is driven to achieve her own dreams.
“There are different ways of communicating the story, and it’s very fulfilling,” said Moral, calling the title character a positive role model for girls. “Mu Lan’s spirit is being told. She believes herself and does a dangerous thing but with her bravery and courage and quick wits, she prevails.”
“The Ballad of Mu Lan” is targeted for children K-5. For that reason, three-quarters of the fight scenes happen offstage in the show. However, because it looks like dancing, there is no actual hitting involved, Chan said. Similarly, the show uses horse whips – like batons – and galloping noises to suggest horses.
“Some of the fighting is comedic, and some, stylistic,” he said. “Kids are usually good at using their imagination, so will see this is not real fighting.”
Produced in partnership with the Honolulu Theatre for Youth, the show includes live music by Matthew Mazzella.
“The Ballad of Mu Lan” runs June 29 to Aug. 11 in the Lerner Theatre of Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Avenue, Bethesda. www.imaginationstage.org.