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Pop songs on the Middle East, put in their place by Silk Road

In 2009, Silk Road Theatre Project took their mission of exploring stories from people of the Silk Road (the trade route that ran from the Far East to the Mediterranean) and gave it a cunning musical spin. "Silk Road Cabaret: Broadway Sings the Silk Road" combined songs penned by Westerners with autobiographical anecdotes from the diverse cast on the difficulties of carving out show-biz careers in the face of sparse — and insulting — roles for performers of Asian and Middle Eastern descent.

The company, which rechristened itself Silk Road Rising recently in recognition of its forays into multimedia as well as theater, picks up a similar map in "Re-Spiced: A Silk Road Cabaret." This time the journey detours from the Great White Way to visit rock, pop, punk, hip-hop and country (and Toby Keith's lamentable post-9/11 "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue"). And in place of the personal reminiscences, we get illuminating interstitial prose from voices as diverse as Edith Wharton, Jean Genet andGen. Douglas MacArthur.

It's a high-minded exercise — devised by Jamil Khoury and directed by Steve Scott — that manages to entertain and enlighten, with only a faint hint of finger-wagging at the continuing cluelessness of Westerners, embodied in the lyrics to "Arabian Nights" from"Aladdin," which opens the show. "They cut off your ear if they don't like your face. It's barbaric, but hey, it's home." (To which the cast adds "It's racist — but hey, it's Disney.")

The material is intertwined geographically and stylistically, allowing for ironic pairings, such as Philip Pullman's wry meditation from "The Amber Spyglass" that "being in love was like China — you knew it was there and no doubt it was very interesting," followed by Joan Baez's "China," a raw elegy for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Ice Cube's "Black Korea," in which he targets the perceived racism of Korean shop owners, is followed by the classic anti-racist Broadway tuner "Carefully Taught" from "South Pacific" and Randy Newman's proto-Tiger Mother ode, "Korean Parents."

But the eight-member cast and musical director Ryan Brewster bring sardonic lightness to a tongue-in-cheek medley of pop anthems exploiting the exotic other — from "Walk Like an Egyptian" to "Turning Japanese" to "Kung Fu Fighting." Brenda Didier's high-spirited choreography makes the most of the small proscenium space, and if you grab a seat at one of the front-row tables, you're likely to be on the receiving end of extra attention from the performers.

The headiness of the material and the intricacies of the music don't always mesh successfully, and I found myself missing some of the personal stories from the first show. But this is the rare cabaret evening that allows you to both enjoy and examine the cultural assumptions underpinning some well-loved songs — and the prose sections in "Re-Spiced" may send you on a mission to add some intriguing new flavors to your reading list.

ctc-arts@tribune.com

When: Through May 6

Where: Silk Road Rising, Chicago Temple, 77 W. Washington St.

Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes

Tickets: $30 at 312-857-1234, ext. 201 or silkroadrising.org

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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