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World premiere musical features local students

Jules Becker

Multi-cultural theater is doing swimmingly well in the suburbs.

A good case in point was the new musical “Sunfish” at Stoneham Theatre. Based on one of Korea’s most famous folktales, “Sim Chung, the Dutiful Daughter,” this world premiere featured the considerable talents of Hub-trained African American actor-singers  in an inspiring story of love and sacrifice.

Though the musical could do with some trimming and a stronger book, the solid cast, under the generally sharp direction of Caitlin Lowans, performed with winning energy and resonant singing.

“Sunfish” compelled attention early on with the affecting love of a poor blind widower known as Father and his devoted daughter Aheh for each other. As they constantly struggled to find food and shelter in their village, Aheh discovered a highly unusual option that could mean restored sight for Father. By the end of the first act, the undaunted daughter risked her own life at the bottom of the sea on the way to a miracle for her father. Composer Hyeyoung Kim and lyricist Michael L. Cooper depicted family unity, boundless paternal caring and a daughter’s remarkable sacrifice with spirit.

Still, their collaboration needs to do more about Aheh’s resourcefulness as she meets and falls in love with a handsome young ruler simply called King. They also needed to make the book tighter and give Father more to do as he is waited for the return of Aheh.

Fortunely for theatergoers, there were ample reasons to stay with “Sunfish” despite such shortcomings. Lowans has given the folk-tale based musical an elegantly spare design. Credit Christopher Ostrom, and music director John Howrey for catching the optimism and snappiness of much of the score.

Matthew S. Waldron’s enhanced the musical with miniature and large size puppets that help advance the story and supply wit and humor appealing to adults and children alike.

Most of all, there was a strong ensemble. David L. Jiles  Jr., an African American Berklee College of Music and Boston Conservatory student, sang with rich tones as Father, whether on the tender “Lullaby” or in duet with Rocio Del Mar Valles, who maked Aheh properly loyal and spunky.

Ara Morton, a recent African American Boston University School of Theater graduate, found all of King’s heart and understanding. Vanessa J. Schukis was scene-stealingly entertaining as Madame Bang Duk Omi, a self-centered villainess who leads on blind men with  her wiles — most notably in a catchy solo entitled “Who’s As Lucky As Me?”

Boston born and bred RandB artist Lovely Hoffman, also African American,  displayed an excitingly big voice in a funky gospel ensemble as King and Aheh are married.

Early in the second act, Aheh is treated to a makeover that tops those on reality show television. The result is a queen as regal as her efforts for Father.     In the case of “Sunfish,” careful tweaking could do the trick. Even so, there is rich diversity on display in Stoneham Theatre’s lively premiere.