Forest Hills couple to share passion project
By Jessica Meditz
Husband and wife team Jonathan and Kimbirdlee Fadner first moved to Forest Hills from California about a decade ago to experience the buzzing musical theater scene that New York City has to offer.
After years of experience and community engagement, the duo looks forward to presenting their passion project, “The Monkey King: A Kung Fu Musical,” for the first time as a fully realized production for young audiences at Queens Theatre in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park.
This performance will take place at 3 p.m. on Feb. 11 and 12; however, “The Monkey King” has been a large part of their creative lives since 2018, upon receiving a grant from Queens Council on the Arts.
“That was one of the pinnacle moments for us,” Kimbirdlee said. “At the same time, we both started working with Queens Theatre doing different things like teaching artists’ work, directing, music directing…so that led to us to start to develop ‘The Monkey King.’”
Around the same time, the couple also started working at Main Street Theatre and Dance Alliance on Roosevelt Island.
“It’s been really a wonderful, wonderful thing for us and then just growing with that community and helping that community grow,” Jonathan said.
When co-writing “The Monkey King,” the Fadners took inspiration for the main character from “Journey to the West” by Wu Cheng’en, a classic Chinese novel that dates back to the 16th century during the Ming dynasty.
Their production is unique in that it features a big twist: the Monkey King character is female, portrayed by Kimbirdlee.
As an experienced writer, composer and music director, Jonathan said this was a conscious decision as it pays homage to his wife’s Chinese heritage and opens up a window of opportunity for Asian women in theater. “The Monkey King” is also completely powered by Asian cast members.
Throughout the course of her career in musical theater, Kimbirdlee found that there were not many roles written specifically for Asian women such as herself, and wanted to take initiative and change that.
She said that New York City is the place that allowed her to truly be herself and excel doing what she loves most: performing and entertaining various audiences.
“It’s really here where I discovered that my own Asian female self, it’s kind of a funny thing to say, but I grew up in the Midwest, not being around too much Asian culture and then moved to California where I felt that there was non-traditional casting going on,” she explained. “But it wasn’t seen through the lens of ‘Let’s actually feature the Asian female actor.’ So that’s one of the really profound things that has happened in my career since moving to New York.”
A story of girl power, anti-bullying and representation, “The Monkey King” follows a tribe of monkeys, living on a mountain, under the oppression of the Demon of Havoc.
In hopes of discovering a magical monkey that will come to save them from all their troubles and lead them to the promised land, the Monkey King shows up…and is a girl.
She tries to increase her power in the world – not just for herself, but for her tribe – and conflicts arise throughout the storyline.
“It’s so cool because never has the Monkey King appeared as a girl…ever,” Kimbirdlee said of the role.
Jonathan said that another unique aspect of the show is that since it is a kung fu musical, the choreography (set by Max Erhlich) is based around the martial art form. In addition, “The Monkey King’s” soundtrack features a mix of classical and rock musical elements.
Jonathan and Kimbirdlee thank the cast and crew for making this production possible: Steven Eng, director; I Chen Wang, projection designer; Erin Black, costume designer; Madeline Goddard, set designer; Kelly Ruth Cole, stage manager; Charlotte Fung Miller, artist; Jerry Fadner, graphic designer; Sarah Lam Chiu, Ellis Gage, Brian Jose, Charles Pang, Gage Thomas, Bella Villanueva and Annie Yamamoto – cast members.
As the parents of two young children, the Fadners understand firsthand the importance of sharing arts and culture with youth.
“The Monkey King” was actually staged as a children’s theater production at first, and being able to share that experience with young people has been incredibly powerful, Kimbirdlee said.
“One really special experience I had was teaching it as an in-school residency early on, and the ending showcase was the entire fourth grade performing a version of ‘The Monkey King’ all in unison,” she said. “We were able to teach the lessons that we were so inspired by with girl power, Asian culture, anti-bullying and just this overall empowerment, in a universal way that every child in this fourth grade could comprehend, could get excited about and then could actually perform it together.”
Taryn Sacramone, executive director of Queens Theatre, is proud to have such a great relationship with the Fadners through the dedicated work they’ve done at the institution.
She said that audiences can expect to be completely delighted and to discover an exciting, action-packed musical in a way that hasn’t been done before.
“We knew this was a passion project and that there was a gap that they saw in the world…you don’t see many of these stories with an Asian actress in the lead and taking an important folkloric tale and telling it in a new way, reaching multiple generations with it,” Sacramone said. “They had this really compelling vision, and they’re also just wonderful people and parents themselves, so they really understand young audiences and what people respond to.”
She shared that years ago, they did a reading of an earlier draft of “The Monkey King” at Queens Theatre, which was extremely well-received.
Sacramone also feels that “The Monkey King” as a production truly aligns with the mission of Queens Theatre, which is to reflect and celebrate the diversity of local communities.
The Fadners feel lucky to maintain and grow relationships within the performing arts community, including with Queens Theatre.
“I think that’s one of the beautiful lessons that we’ve learned coming to New York,” Kimbirdlee said while tearing up, “To have an organization like Queens Theatre believe in us and in our work…means so much to us.”
For more information and to purchase tickets, visit: https://queenstheatre.org/event/the-monkey-king/, or call the box office at (718) 760-0064.