"Stuck Elevator" began in 2005 when Bryon Au Yong began following news stories about a Chinese restaurant deliveryman from the Happy Dragon who disappeared after dropping off an order of curried shrimp and fried rice in the Bronx.

Co-workers found his the worker's bicycle chained outside a 38-story apartment building and worried that he had been robbed or murdered. It turned out the deliveryman, a Chinese undocumented immigrant who spoke nearly no English, was trapped for 81 hours without food or water between the third and fourth floors in a 4-foot-by- 6-and-a-half-foot express elevator, which skipped all floors between the second and 21st. The grad school composer thought there was something in the story worth exploring on stage.

He talked with Aaron Jafferis, his classmate at New York University graduate music theater program, and together they began developing a new work, inspired by the ripped-from-the-headlines story.

After years of readings and workshops and developmental commissions from the Yale Institute for Music Theatre and two Sundance Theatre Institute Labs, "Stuck Elevator," which is described as "a comic-rap-scrap metal musical," will make its East Coast premiere at Long Wharf Theatre's Stage II, as part of New Haven's International Festival of Arts & Ideas.

The new co-production by the festival and Long Wharf, staged by playwright-director Chay Yew, follows its world premiere at San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre in April. A tour is planned following the festival run.

The show stars Julius Ahn in the principal role in the five-actor, sung-though hybrid of musical theater and opera.

"I first saw the work at a book-in-hand reading in New York years ago," says Mary Lou Aleskie, director of the festival. At the time it had one character, but it was so powerful to me."

The festival is co-producing the show with Long Wharf Theatre and ArKtype/Thomas O. Kriegsmann, which also produced Hartford Stage's "Man in a Case" with Mikhail Baryshnikov. "[Co-producing the show] is a leap of faith for us," says Aleskie. "But it's a timely show with immigration reform, and it's something that resonates in the New Haven community as well."

The engagement is also an artistic homecoming for the self-described "hip-pop poet and playwright" Jafferis who grew up in New Haven, studied at the Educational Center for the Arts, and started developing his writing and performance skills. (He was in the Long Wharf Theatre community-centric production of "The Good Person of New Haven" in 2000.)

"The theme of immigration is one I am fascinated with and which is really important here," says Jafferis, 37, who lived a block from the Yale Bowl in the Westville section of New Haven and is a 1993 graduate of Hillhouse High School. ("I was the shy nerdy white kid," he says.) He now lives in the city's Fairhaven section.

Another aspect of the story that drew Jafferis to the project is the theme of isolation.

"The feeling of loneliness, particularly living in New York City, was something I felt keenly," he says. "Coming from such a strong community in New Haven, I felt community-less when I was living there. I had a roommate I didn't see very often. I wasn't part of any artistic community, even in grad school, because I really wasn't into [traditional Broadway] musicals."

But Jafferis sees the play's theme of isolation on a larger scale.

"In the U.S., there's this emphasis on individualism and success, as opposed to some other cultures. So [in 'Stuck Elevator'] we have this guy who is so far from his family back in China, who is not very connected to the people where he works, who doesn't have friends or family, who doesn't speak the language — and to add another layer to that isolation, he's stuck in this elevator.

Isolation and Imagination

Both Jafferis and Yong identify with aspects of the main character.

"We were both only children," says Jafferis, "so we had experiences where we had to entertain ourselves for long periods of time when we were younger, which is something our character of Guang has to do in the elevator. He has a really active imagination which is why we have four other actors the show."

Jafferis says they resisted adding characters during much of the show's development "because we felt it was important to show his isolation and that giving him other people to bounce off seemed like cheating. But what we found was when we allow him to have a moment in his memory with his wife and son who are back in China and then he comes back to the reality of the elevator, it's like — boom! — the walls are back. It actually heightens the isolation."

It also enabled Jafferis and Yong to explore Guang's internal conflicts deeper: Should he stay or return to China. Should he abandon his family in China and start a new one here?

The creators also added the characters of Guang's estranged brother-in-law, a 22-year-old nephew who was smuggled with Guang on a container ship to this country, and most significantly, the character of another immigrant delivery man — from Tlaxcala, Mexico, home to many New Haven immigrants.