The United States is at its heart a patchwork of immigrant families, some recent arrivals and others less so. The new musical that TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is premiering at Palo Alto’s Lucie Stern Theatre, “The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga,” is a quintessential American story. It’s also a slice of Bay Area history, taking place in and around San Francisco from 1904 through 1924.
Written and composed by Bay Area playwright Min Kahng, “The Four Immigrants” is based on a very early graphic novel created in 1931 by artist Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama, detailing his misadventures with three other young Japanese men he befriended while immigrating to America.
Charlie (irrepressibly enthusiastic Hansel Tan), a self-styled forward thinker who can’t wait to leave the old country and old ways behind and become the American he already is inside. Fred (Sean Fenton, bullheadedly impatient) just wants to make some money to buy a farm, though he also fancies himself a ladies’ man.
Frank (Phil Wong, humorously slow on the uptake) is indecisive and easily dissuaded, so much so that he keeps his big dream to himself. As the point-of-view character, Henry (low-key, amiable James Seol) is the most subdued of the lot, a quiet dreamer who focuses on his art and doesn’t seem to have much of a personal life, or at least not one he talks about.
The story is about their dreams and adventures, but also all the obstacles thrown in their way— laws created specifically to prevent Asian immigrants from buying land or becoming citizens, and chilling encounters with people who just don’t want them there.
Developed in the company’s 2016 New Works Festival, “The Four Immigrants” is given a lively, fanciful world premiere staging by TheatreWorks associate artistic director Leslie Martinson. The projected backgrounds by Katherine Freer have a colorful painted quality like illustrations in a children’s storybook, and any details on the moving walls of Andrew Boyce’s set are line drawings.
Played by a small orchestra under the direction of William Liberatore, Kahng’s catchy songs combine plenty of period touches of vaudeville and ragtime with more modern musical theater styles. Vaudeville also informs the playful performance style from time to time, but not to the point of making it shticky.
Pretty much everyone the four immigrants meet is played by a quartet of women, both individually and as a chorus. The men occasionally also double as other characters, most notably Fenton as Charlie’s disapproving ex-samurai father, always nudging him to send money.
Rinabeth Apostol has memorable roles as the helpful Elder who’s always free with advice and as a skittish picture bride traveling to join a husband she’s never met. Kerry K. Carnahan is a commanding wife and an insidiously charismatic gambling den owner. Lindsay Hirata exudes fortitude as a young Japanese American woman forging her own path. Catherine Gloria plays a number of amusingly squeaky young women and children as well as a disturbingly vociferous Anti-Asiatic League propagandist.
It’s a fascinating slice of American and local history told through the lens of these four men’s experiences. We see San Francisco landmarks and events such as the 1906 earthquake and the 1915 World’s Fair through their eyes. We see how passionately they want to make their mark here, and how bitterly unfair it is to be denied on basis of race or national origin. We see Henry pioneering a use of comics that wouldn’t become common until decades later. More than anything, though, we see them — these four friends in all their quirks, dreams and disappointments — and it’s a testament to Henry’s work on his “funny pages” that their stories continue to resonate a century later in a new form.
Contact Sam Hurwitt at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him at Twitter.com/shurwitt.
‘THE FOUR IMMIGRANTS: AN AMERICAN MUSICAL MANGA’
By Min Kahng, based on the graphic novel by Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama, presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Through: Aug. 6
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes, one intermission
Tickets: $40-$100; 650-463-1960, www.theatreworks.org
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