An intriguingly complementary production, “The Four Immigrants” (with the subtitle “An American Musical Manga”), insinuated itself into the hearts and spirits of its appreciative audience Saturday night at the Lucie Stern Theater in Palo Alto as TheatreWorks Silicon Valley opened its world premiere of Min Kahng’s refreshing, sometimes poetic creation.
Director Leslie Martinson worked hand-in-glove with Kahng for about four years, nurturing him through many TheatreWorks-sponsored events, especially its 2016 New Works Festival. As a result, Kahng, a Bay Area playwright, created this homage to Japanese immigrants and their manga (cartooning style) by not only writing the book but also the music and lyrics.
It’s a delight to behold.
Matter of fact, despite a pre-show apology for a few technical visual glitches, there’s hardly a false step here. Not in the casting (Martinson’s choices). Not in the choreography (by the dazzling Dottie Lester-White). Not in the music arrangements and direction (by wonderfully reliable William Liberatore).
The eight tremendously versatile actors frolicking, dancing and singing in an untold number of roles are so infectious that even when the plot slows down a bit, the audience stays attentive, knowing that any moment now, something unexpected (and usually amusing) will happen.
Though this is specifically about four Japanese immigrants who came by ship to San Francisco to create a new life in 1904, it nevertheless resonates today, when immigrants from other countries are facing bans from the country that once proudly proclaimed, “Give me your tired, your poor” on a certain famous statue.
There certainly were prejudices and racism galore in the early days of the 20th century, especially when “Orientals” could not own land and could not become naturalized citizens — even after serving in the U.S. Army in World War I.
But though this production has its heartbreaking, melancholy sequences, its primary theme is hopefulness — even when, 20 years later, two of the original four men head back to Japan (one because his misfortunes have made him decide to start anew in his homeland and the other — a successful portrait artist and comic-strip cartoonist who gets his graphic novel about the travails and tribulations of his friends printed in book form — decides to share his drawn memories book back in Japan).
In between there are joyful, jubilant moments filled with color, dance, and some whiz-bang panels on wheels that fly, twirl, expand and become the background for everything from fancy San Francisco homes and a bawdy casino to a bunkhouse and a tranquil teahouse. That’s the wizardry of scenic designer Andrew Boyce and crew.
It’s difficult to single out any one of the eight actors because each has his or her moment (sometimes several moments) in the spotlight. As the fashionably dressed Charlie, Hansel Tan takes command of the quartet and leads them forward in the new land by exhorting them to have “Optimism,” one of the most upbeat songs in “Immigrants.” Phil Wong, as Frank, wears his heart on his sleeve, yet always seems to lose out. He’s sweet, affecting and kind.
James Soel has a winning way about him that makes his Henry authentic and heartfelt. It’s his comic drawings that are at the center of this story, which is based on Henry Kiyama’s 1931 manga book about the experiences of the four young Japanese men who immigrate to America.
But it is Sean Fenton whose Fred decides to leave the city to work on a farm that turns in the most nuanced performance. At times hysterically funny, Fenton also makes Fred so genuine — and generous — that he is simply a joy to watch. His entire courtship and marriage to Kimiko (Kerry K. Carnahan), a mail-order bride from Japan, are delightful and touching scenes.
Of course, much of the credit for that goes to the steely-eyed Carnahan, who, with the three other female cast members match (and sometimes overmatch) the men. Carnahan switches easily from an upper-crust society dame to the foulmouthed casino owner Bakkapei Bao, but she’s at her best alternately showing a quick temper and tender love for Fred — and their ever-expanding brood!
Rinabeth Apostol is a cranky charmer as the church elder, yet she excels as a frightened bride and many other roles.
As Hana, the engaging young Japanese Tea House server with whom Charlie falls in love — until he learns she also dances at the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition — Lindsay Hirata is affecting in a gentle way. The audience sat in total silence during her beautiful a cappella rendition of the affecting Japanese theme song, “Furusato.”
Catherine Gloria is another amazing find in this show. Her big, dark eyes shine brightly every time she’s on stage, and her versatility is remarkable. Wearing lots of bouffant crinoline petticoats under her skirt, whether dressed as a Caucasian anti-Asian leader, a mailman or countless other personas, she is always fresh, always riveting.
All of this still doesn’t capture the fact that these eight performers master some pretty tricky dance numbers (with lots of Bob Fosse jazz hands), often while also singing, sliding around those rolling panels, and, oh yes, acting.
Liberatore’s small, effective orchestra comes in at just the right moments, never overpowering the singers and playing medleys that range from honky tonk to jazz to the lyrical Japanese “Furusato” (which translates as “home” or homeland).
Noah Marin’s costumes add richness to the entire production, which requires everything from a full-length fur coat (for Fred) to the razzle-dazzle outfits worn by the women for their dance numbers, later, soft-hued kimonos with overly large buns, then cute children’s costumes with gigantic pink hair ribbons, and, of course, the men’s period high-collared shirts, suits, jackets and shoes. Sartorial splendor.
Jeff Mockus’ sound worked especially well in the Lucie Stern Theater, where sometimes sound is a problem, and Steven B. Mannshardt’s lighting was, as always, illuminating. Katherine Freer designed the colorful projections which added another dimension to this show.
Not all of the vignettes quite gelled, and some, like the 1906 earthquake scenes, seem too fragmented to be meaningful. But all in all, for a world premiere, it was pretty darned successful … and loads of fun.
Catch it here so that someday you may be able to say you saw it before it opened in New York.
Email Joanne Engelhardt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: “The Four Immigrants”
Produced by: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Where: Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through Aug. 6
Tickets: $40-$100; 650-463-1960 or www.theatreworks.org
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