Arts and Culture

Review: ‘Blended 和 (Harmony)’ looks at a Chinese American swing group from Minnesota

People on stage perform
"Blended 和 (Harmony)" tells the story of the Kim Loo Sisters. The original musical is now running at the History Theatre in St. Paul.
Courtesy of Rich Ryan

As the lights go up at the History Theatre, four Chinese-Polish American sisters appear in shadows behind a curtain, rising to reveal a minimalist set by Mina Kinukawa that evokes a 1920s nightclub. The sisters, dressed in gaudy theatrical stage costumes, sing swing songs and circle each other, performing synchronized, syncopated boogie-woogie dance steps.

These are the Kim Loo Sisters, a jazz vocal quartet from Minneapolis, who enjoyed some national success in the period between the two World Wars, and then were mostly forgotten. Now they are the subject of a new musical.

“Blended 和 (Harmony)” is told in two acts. The first takes place over a few weeks at most, telling of Broadway and betrayal. The second act spans nearly a decade and includes the Japanese invasion of China. With so much story to tell, the musical largely focuses on two of the sisters, the effervescent Bubbles and the troubled Jenée.

Bubbles is the youngest of the group, and speaks with slangy dialogue — describing everything as “ginchy!” She’s played by Audrey Mojica, a triple threat: She practically vibrates with energy as she sings and dances, and has mastered vaudevillian comedy.

She idolizes Ann Miller — a performer of the era with voracious ambition, played by Audrey Parker. The sisters even perform with Miller on occasion, but Miller’s no-nonsense professional aspirations leave little room for friendship — or even ethics. Though not villainous, Miller is the closest thing to a physical antagonist the show has.

This becomes especially pointed — and, for Bubbles, painful — at the end of the first act, when Miller’s partnership with the sisters produces a musical number that is flashy, show off-ish and based on a racist depiction of Chinatown.

Sister Jenée is so stung by this that she flees to China with a young student she has just met. She’s played by Kelsey Angel Baehrens and hers is the role with the most flesh on it. She is given some of the most well-written and detailed musical numbers — including an exquisite traditional fan dance in act one that shows both her deep respect for her ancestry and why she is so hurt when it is betrayed.

People on stage perform
Audrey Mojica gives a show-stopping performance in "Blended 和 (Harmony)," now running at the History Theatre in St. Paul.
Courtesy of Rich Ryan

“Blended 和 (Harmony)” was written by local playwright Jessica Huang and sets out to document, not editorialize, looking to preserve the history of the sisters and dramatize the struggles they faced as mixed-race entertainers.

On opening night, during the curtain call, the show’s cast and artistic staff brought a guest to the stage: Leslie Li, the real-life daughter of sister Jenée. She ignored the audience, moving from cast member to cast member to thank them for their performance.

Finally, she was exhorted to speak. She turned to the audience. “I am very proud, I am very honored to have them represent my family,” she said of the cast.

“Blended 和 (Harmony): The Kim Loo Sisters,” a co-production of Theater Mu and the History Theatre, runs at the History Theatre in St. Paul through May. 

Correction (May 10, 2024): An earlier version of this story misspelled Jessica Huang’s last name. It has been updated.

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment's Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.