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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule


The Cast
Photo by Kevin Berne
A musical by a local playwright opens in a production that had its beginning on the same stage, for a company whose annual New Works Festival and new works premieres are both known and respected nationwide. The musical explores and exposes a part of San Francisco and U.S. history still largely unknown today. Within a few scenes, the resemblances to current events in America become increasingly surreal.

The story of immigrants arriving on the shores of the Golden State is told with songs that often sound as all-American as "Yankee Doodle"—songs with notes of jazz, ragtime, country-western, and even Sousa-like march beats. And the many songs of this new musical are actually hummable, remaining upon leaving as fun earworms (something often not true for today's new musicals). Add to all of these elements a cast that is to a person stellar and a director (Leslie Martinson) who orchestrates the story's telling with daring deftness, an open heart, and a penchant for allowing much wit even against dire adversity. The resulting prediction is that Min Kahng's (book, music, lyrics) new musical The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga appears destined to be another widely recognized success from the long line of over sixty world premieres, as TheatreWorks Silicon Valley opens its 48th season.

As four young Japanese men step off the boat in San Francisco in 1904, their opening number is rousing in its harmonies and beaming with much hope and promise, as they sing, "Oh, dearest America ... America welcomes a traveler like me ... We're four immigrants, and we're here to stay." With dreams filling their heads, the four soon discover the stark truth—that the job most open to them in America is that of a "Japanese school boy," a local euphemism for house servants.

Undeterred, they head off to homes of the rich white women of the city, only to be kicked out of their first jobs by their matronly bosses who sing loudly, "Go Home" in a slapstick number resembling the exaggerated faces and moves of that era's silent movies. But dreams prevail as the now sure-friends pursue with vigor new routes to the opportunities they still believe America offers them.

Playwright Min Kahng takes us through the next twenty-plus years of their journey and does so in the form of a comic strip played out live on the stage before us. The Four Immigrants is inspired and based on the true story of the men we meet as told and illustrated by one of them, Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama, in the first-ever comic book based on original material, Manga Yonin Shosei.

The feel of the funnies comes alive through the great ingenuity of Andrew Boyce's set design that employs roving panels of comic-strip-drawn scenes as well as moving doors the immigrants must continually work their way through as they seek routes to their American dreams. Katherine Freer's stage-filling and panel-bound projections are drawn and colored with comic book flair (the latter not working on opening night, unfortunately, but hardly noticed with all the great talent on the stage). Mr. Kiyama's actual comic art becomes particularly fun and touching as we see projected, the drawn originals of the people we have gotten to know and love on stage through these excellent actors.

Hansel Tan is Charlie, a smiling man who arrives to "follow the vibrant best of America." He brings his highly contagious, fully enthusiastic energy in "Optimism," a number in which he expresses a forever upbeat outlook with a voice bursting in happy, vibrating pulses. He is joined by the full cast in soft-shoe routines right off a vaudeville stage with exact-timed, eye-popping side kicks in the air that are just a small sliver of the evening's period-inspired, well-designed, and exquisitely executed choreography by Dottie Lester-White.

As roadblocks of prejudice and personal tragedies crop up, even Charlie has moments of temporary despair. Mr. Tan shows an impressively wide range of emotions. In a half-whispered, gorgeously intoned "Sorry, Father," he sings to a now-deceased father who always wanted him to return to Japan, "You will live in the trails I blaze, and you won't be sorry, father."

As Henry, a cartoonist-in-the-making, James Seol has a smile that fills his entire being as he discovers in the partly sung, partly spoken "The Funny Pages" that "all these moments of hell would be swell as a comic strip." As his resolve grows to sketch in his notebook their evolving lives of ups and downs, Mr. Seol's vocals open into a clear, wonderfully sung conclusion that rings with determination and conviction that their life "is a scene from the funny pages."

Phil Wong is the cautious, shy, but instantly likeable Frank, whose initial stuttering-prone hesitation gives way to bubbling zeal and confidence as he sings "Frank's Dream." In a voice reminiscent of what might be heard on an early 20th century gramophone, Mr. Wong steals the show and our hearts with a number about becoming "Frank, the Footwear King," replete with circling, dancing girls holding wands tipped with shined shoes of the period.

Rounding out this quartet of immigrants is Sean Fenton as Fred, self-described as a "rural boy" who would not mind getting "frizzy with a girl." Determined to be a farmer, Fred has some green-thumb luck in the Central Valley and opens the second half leading the entire cast in a rambunctious, resounding "Money Ain't So Bad" in full roaring '20s style of dance and song.

As it turns out, these four men are just a small part of the cast. Over ninety other characters, ranging from Nob Hill socialites to Barbary Coast whores, telegraph boys to 1906 hero firemen, and roughneck vigilantes to members of the cloth show up in their lives—all played by four remarkably talented women. Rinabeth Apostol, Kerry K. Carnahan, Catherine Gloria, and Lindsay Hirata each have many chances to star individually and to shine collectively. Together, they are fantastic with Japanese accents and rendered tones in "The Song of the Picture Brides" as they portray young women coming to America to marry an advertised portrait. On the other hand, they are frightening and disturbing as they become angry, common American citizens singing "One of Us" in voices that cut to the bitter core through the cries of prejudice and hatred expressed in their music.

As he typically does on the TheatreWorks and other Bay Area stages, musical director William Liberatore has assembled a first-rate-sounding, seven-piece orchestra that plays Mr. Kahng's period and Japanese inspired score with zest and zing. Noah Marin's costumes recall those first twenty-plus years of the last century while also adding many comic-book-worthy outfits that change as often as the four women rotate among their dozens of parts. The lighting of Steven B. Mannshardt glows with his usual touch of artistry and inventiveness, and the sound design of Jeff Mockus ensures that not a word is missed of the oft-accented lines and that the balance with the orchestra is beautifully maintained in all of the twenty-plus sung numbers.

With the comic book look and feel that prevails throughout the two-hour, twenty-minute musical, there is much to laugh not at, but with the four young men as their new immigrant experiences unfold before us. That there is much humor and fun does not negate that there is also way too much that is not funny at all, as the accounting of local and American history proves to be sad and even sickening. Even more shocking are the near word-for-word parallels of the long-ago 1920s to the rhetoric of today's far right and to the oft-heard views that new U.S. immigrants (especially those of colors other than lily white) steal jobs from citizens, should not become citizens, and should (as the song says), "Go home."

Overall, Min Kahng's new musical is a delight to behold and to hear. There is much joy in the immigrants' newfound friendships and loves and much inspiration in the perseverance shown by these four men to pursue personal excellence in a new land. But The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga also serves as a wake-up call that history too often has a tendency to repeat itself and that we as an audience need to walk out resolved more than ever to voice our opposition to the current waves of proposed anti-immigrant, anti-American policies by our leaders. Kudos to TheatreWorks Silicon Valley for this clarion reminder for us all to be up-standers and not just bystanders of our own history in the making.

The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga continues in a world premiere production, through August 6, 2017, by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto CA. Tickets are available at www.theatreworks.org.


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