Theater Mu’s World Premiere of Again is a Show You’ll Want to See Again and Again!

Melody Her (Quest), Pagnia Xiong (Shia) and Dexieng Yang (Mai See) Photo by Rich Ryan

It was just a little over three years ago, March 14th 2020 to be exact, I was sitting in the Mixed Blood Theatre, probably in the same seat I was in tonight. I saw Interstate the Musical for the third and final time before it closed early due to the Pandemic. Faithful followers will know that I see a lot of theater, and my schedule doesn’t really allow for me to see things more than once. I did something I’ve never done before, and havent done since, I cancelled reviewing another show in order to see Interstate for a third time knowing it was going to be the final performance. You see, Interstate the Musical spoke to me, it’s in my top five favorite musicals of all time. A big part of that are the songs which were written by Melissa Li. Li is also the writer of the music and lyrics for Again which I attended on opening night of Theater Mu’s world premiere. Next Thursday April 6th is my Birthday, I think what I want for my birthday this year is to see Again, again.

The book and additional lyrics are by Katie Ka Vang who has a long association with Theater Mu. A cancer survivor herself, Vang has clearly drawn on her personal experience battling the disease. Again is the the story of two artists who are both cancer survivors. Mai See is a writer whose book, The Cancer Year, is a memoir of her battle with cancer. Quest is a filmmaker who at 20 has been living with chronic cancer for years. Mai See’s book has been a inspiration to Quest who wants to make a documentary about her. Mai See, reluctantly agrees, partly because Quest offers to pay her $700. As the documentary is being made Mai discovers her cancer is back. Throughout the show we will learn about the long term and short term side effects of cancer treatment. We also learn about the two women and their families, Quest has a mother, whom we never see but has had a lasting effect on her. Mai’s sister doesn’t return her calls, we will see her throughout the play. Frankly, a musical about cancer with such broken family relationships has no business being as funny and heartwarming as this is. Vang’s gift is in creating characters, despite having to deal with difficult things, also finds the humor in life. Constipation for example can be a painful side effect of chemotherapy, Vangs characters deal with it in a very real way so that we who haven’t dealt with it get an understanding of what it’s like. And then, there’s a song that Mai sings while sitting on the toilet that has the entire audience laughing out loud. It’s these explorations of the intersection between pain and humor that make the characters and situations relatable. The other aspect is the fact that none of the characters are perfect, they all have flaws, they all struggle at times which makes them feel real and helps to create empathy for them. It wasn’t long into the show before I had those pesky teardrops crawling down my cheeks.

Melissa Li proves once again that she is one of the best songwriters working in contemporary musical theater. Geared heavily in the pop/rock tradition for most of the songs we also get tastes of other genres. The song “Santorini” feels like an homage to a classic musical like South Pacific. Whereas “The Messenger” had touches of a Disney animated musical, both in the best ways possible. Li has a real strength in writing songs that reveal the characters to us, we fall in love with the character of Quest in the song “Quest” learning so much about her through it’s lyrics and the style of the song. “Lifeboat”sung by Shia, Mai See’s sister, is a brilliant reveal of Shia’s feelings about Mai and the reason for their estrangement. She also writes wickedly clever lyrics that are massively entertaining in such songs as “Constipation” and “Are You Fucking Kidding Me?”. Once again as was the case with Interstate the Musical what we desperately want after the show ends is a cast recording album to listen to on the way home. There is not a throw away song in the entire show, and that’s a surprisingly rare thing. Most classic musicals have a at least a song or two that we all skip past while listening to them in the car.

For a musical it has a surprisingly small cast, there are only four actors. Melody Her is making her professional stage debut as Quest. This was my favorite performance, she sells Quest from her first moments on stage and before the end of her first scene the tears had started, which is weird because she’s such a positive and funny and infectious character. It’s those attributes that make you take an immediate liking to her and when you hear some of the struggles she’s faced your heart breaks for this girl who refuses to pity herself. It’s a remarkably engaging character and Melody Her is an enormously appealing performer whom I cannot wait to see what she does next. Aaron Komo returns to the stage after a seven year hiatus playing multiple roles, such as Broc the owner of the Bookstore where Mai works, and the Doctor who tells her the cancer has returned. he’s good in every part but the favorites are his roles in fantasy or dream sequences in songs like the aforementioned “Santorini” and “The Messenger”. Pagnia Xiong is Shia, Mai’s sister and, nothing against the two leads, but she is by far the best vocalist in the show, with oddly enough Komo taking second place. Xiong has focused primarily on music over the last two decades but her performance dramatically would make you assume she’d been acting nonstop. Dexieng “Dae” Yang is Mai See and the only performer I’d seen before tonight. Yang is present during nearly every minute of Again, even the scene she’s not in, ends up turning up in a flashback. Her character is the most nuanced and Yang expertly shows us the different sides on Mai. There is a reveal late in the play that sheds a new light on the character, one that could make her a little less sympathetic. Yang has built such a solid character that the reveal simply deepens our understanding of the character and identify with her more.

The production is directed by Nana Dakin who isn’t afraid to take the show in a whimsical direction at times. Deftly switching between reality and fantasy without ever feeling jarring, even switching back and forth during the song “Are You Fucking Kidding Me?”. There are a surprising number of scene changes in the show and Dakin consistently finds ways to hold our attention and focus as the scene changes occur quickly and efficiently onstage. The set is designed by Alice Endo and primarily consists of two wall sections on either side of center stage, which if seen from above would be in the shape of a pie divided equally in thirds. The wall rotates allowing for three separate locations and with some minor redressing they able to add two more locales. It’s a creative and effective design which allows for quick location changes by cast and stage managers, as the walls rotate the set pieces such as a couch or the counter at the bookstore are moved backstage. The lighting is well designed by Erik Paulson who has an active role in creating some of the humor via the clever use of spotlights. Sandy Agustin’s choreography is never too elaborate, frequently acting as extensions of the characters natural movements within a scene. Her work really shines in the movements of Melody Her as Quest, who’s movements are almost always at a more amped up carefree level representative of her characters personality. Her’s performance melds perfectly with Agustin’s moves, she looks completely comfortable and the dances feel spontaneous.

Again runs through April 16th at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis for more information and to purchase tickets go to

Don’t want to miss a single review from The Stages of MN? You can subscribe and have every post sent directly to your email. To Subscribe on your computer: from the home page on the right, enter your email address and click subscribe. On your mobile device scroll to the bottom of the page and do the same. Also you can follow me on Facebook, search @thestagesofmn and click follow and on Instagram thestagesofmn.

I am also a member of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers (TCTB), you can read roundups of shows by my colleagues and I on facebook @TwinCitiesTheaterBloggers. Follow that group, It’s a great way to see reviews for shows I don’t get to or to get another blogger’s take on one I did. We have some exciting things in the works for 2023 for the TCTB and our readers. Follow us to be the first to know about those happenings like our recent Prom Date with the TCTB that we held on March 4th. If you didn’t make it to that event there’s still time to see the The Prom at Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (CDT) thru June 10th . You can view the TCTB Talk Back that we held on March 4th with the CDT Artistic Director and three of the stars of The Prom here

Watch for an exciting announcement of the next TCTB event soon and save the date, May 4th!