I've seen many good productions from TheatreWorks over the years but its newest, the world premiere of Min Kahng's "The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga," is surely one of the best. Smart, funny, touching and visually stunning, it's simply wonderful.
It's always exciting to witness the birth of a great show, especially one with so many local ties. "Four Immigrants" has its origins in TheatreWorks' Writers' Retreat and New Works Festival. Bay Area Playwright/Composer Kahng first happened upon a translated copy of Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama's "The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco, 1904-1924," considered one of the modern world's first graphic novels, in a secondhand bookshop. In turning the comic book (manga, to use the Japanese term) into a musical about the experiences leading up to the creation of the book itself, Kahng and TheatreWorks have transferred the look and vignette style of a comic strip -- as well as the musical styles of the period -- to the stage.
In some ways, as noted by TheatreWorks Artistic Director Robert Kelley, "The Four Immigrants" can be considered a companion piece to "Rags," the musical presented by the company earlier this year. While that show covered the more familiar tale of Eastern Europeans settling in New York City, "The Four Immigrants" covers the same time period and similar struggles of Asian immigrants on the opposite coast. If you mainly think of Angel Island as a scenic spot for hiking these days, remember, it was once the Ellis Island of the West.
The story concerns the titular four Japanese immigrants, using Americanized first names: artistic Henry (James Seol), optimistic go-getter Charlie (Hansel Tan), sweet and naive Frank (Phil Wong) and amorous farmer Fred (Sean Fenton). They meet on the long sea journey from Japan to San Francisco, where they hope to make their new American dreams come true. Henry seeks to make his mark in the art world, while Frank hopes for a career in business and Fred plans on saving up to buy his own farm. Charlie, a self-professed forward thinker and son of a former samurai, is anxious to shake off the antiquated shackles of Japan's ancient feudal society. He's thrown himself wholeheartedly into studying English and American history, literature and philosophy, and is a firm believer in American democracy and freedom.
Of course, he and his fellow immigrants are bound to be quickly disillusioned. Once they arrive in the Golden State, they must confront the insidious racism that seeks to prevent them from getting jobs, housing and basic rights, while experiencing big moments in San Francisco history, such as the 1906 earthquake and the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition.
The fact that Kiyama chronicled these adventures in comic-book form gives them a marvelous sense of wry humor and adventure amongst the more serious moments, and Kahng and co have done an excellent job of keeping that tone in the stage version. It moves from broad, cartoonish comedy to poignant solemnity smoothly. Stylistic touches along the way, such as the Western characters using broken English while the four leads speak eloquently (and ostensibly in Japanese) to each other, are well done.
The success of any musical rests largely, obviously, on its music, and the songs of "The Four Immigrants" are excellent: catchy, evocative of the ragtime-and-vaudeville era and full of clever lyrics and rhymes. I hope the soundtrack will eventually be made available.
All four of the male leads are terrific, as are the four women (Rinabeth Apostol, Kerry K. Carnahan, Catherine Gloria and Lindsay Hirata) who play every other role in the show -- a truly impressive feat. They're all strong vocalists and actors, and each woman gets plenty of limelight moments, including Carnahan as Chinese-American gambling kingpin Bakkapei Bao and Fred's formidable wife Kimiko; Apostol as a cheekily wise Buddhist elder; Hirata as Charlie's love interest, the levelheaded Hana; and Gloria in the showstopping role of the "Anti-Asiatic Leader," her beautiful voice providing uncomfortable contrast with her song's awful, racist lyrics.
Director Leslie Martinson, Musical Director William Liberatore and Choreographer Dottie Lester-White have all done a masterful job (the very enjoyable dancing was an especially pleasant surprise).
The visual components of a show are, to me, less essential than the writing and on-stage talent, but they can certainly have an impact. Here (despite a few technical difficulties that delayed the start of the opening-night show), they are a triumph. Andrew Boyce's scenic design, along with Katherine Freer's projections and the rest of the tech crew help bring the comic-book look alive on the stage, displaying images from the original book in tandem with the poses of the actors and tying the whole project together with a unique aesthetic. Noah Marin's colorful, eye-catching costumes are similarly perfectly suited to the vaudevillian feel.
The stories of the Issei (first-generation Japanese immigrants) in California are important and well-worth studying, remembering and celebrating, and, as is often the case, contain lessons still relevant as the U.S. continues to struggle with issues of prejudice, xenophobia and identity. Kiyama did his best to memorialize them with his groundbreaking book. Now, Kahng and TheatreWorks have taken his work to a new level. "The Four Immigrants" is wildly entertaining, beautifully crafted and executed and should be a major hit.
What: "The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga"
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Through Aug. 6, see website for schedule
Info: Go to TheatreWorks.