A rollicking turn-of-the-century San Francisco provides the backdrop to an exciting new musical that shows America simultaneously as a land of opportunity and a sometimes cruel, unwelcoming host to immigrants.
In “The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga,” the focus is on Japanese people who arrived early in the 20th century, not as refugees but as people looking for better jobs and new lives in the vast expanses of America. The show is a world premiere at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, which worked with the playwright and composer Min Kahng over the course of nearly four years to develop the story that artistic director Robert Kalley describes as a companion piece to “Rags,” a story of immigration to the East Coast by Eastern Europeans.
What makes the story really pop off the stage is Kahng’s ingenious combination of a traditional immigrant saga with Japanese comic-book style, all presented in vaudeville and ragtime music. Kahng was in a used book store in Berkeley in 2012 when he found a book in the graphic novel section written by a Japanese artist, Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama, telling the story of four Japanese immigrants from 1904 to 1924 in San Francisco, all in cartoon style.
Kiyama becomes one of the characters in the musical, along with three other young men who become friends as they sail from Tokyo to San Francisco. The immigrants are played by Hansel Tan (Charlie), Sean Fenton (Fred), Phil Wong (Frank) and James Seol (Henry), all of whom display the full range of emotions from exhilaration and trepidation upon their arrival in America to loneliness to pride to anger when the anti-Asian forces beat them down.
As they step off the ship, dazzled by San Francisco and the rest of America stretching thousands of miles to the east, they share their dreams: Frank wants to open a shoe store and become “Frank the Footwear King;” Charlie wants to throw off his samurai father’s ties to Japan’s feudal past; Fred wants to buy land and live a quiet life as a farmer; and Henry wants to become an artist, but not one limited by the stylistic conventions of his heritage. “Sorry, Father,” sung by Tan and Seol, captures both the sons’ regret at leaving their families behind and their determination to make new lives in a foreign land.
The delightful song “Optimism,” led by Tan, is a madcap romp complete with acrobatic, heel-clicking leaps that sum up the young men’s exuberance and desire to leap over hurdles placed between them and their dreams.
Chief among them are laws regulating property ownership; the men quickly learn that the way to land ownership is to marry and have a child, thus a U.S. citizen, whose name would be on the title to
property. But how to find a Japanese girl to marry? “Girl From Back Home” and “Song of the Picture Brides” tell us.
But more onerous than the legal limitations that emigres from Asia faced was the xenophobia of the white population, which formed Anti-Asiatic Leagues and hounded Chinese and Japanese immigrants out of town, as demonstrated by the “One of Us” song.
The show is not entirely focused on the four male characters. Rinabeth Apostol, Kerry K. Carnahan, Catherine Gloria and Lindsay Hirata play a variety of characters, male and female, and typically are dressed in brightly striped outfits that seem to have come straight off a comic book’s pages. Apostol makes a wise Elder who schools the greenhorns in life in these United States; Carnahan is a practical, down-to-earth partner to Fred’s farmer; Gloria is a chilling anti-Asiatic leader; and Hirata makes a lovely Hana, a modern Japanese-American woman who makes her living as both a fan dancer and a traditional Japanese tea-room hostess.
Leslie Martinson’s direction keeps the show fresh and lively throughout, although as is often the case with new musicals, there is extraneous material to be trimmed to make the show tighter and more coherent. Dottie Lester-White’s choreography seems simultaneously brand-new and familiar. Noah Marin’s costumes are a pleasure to see, with the young men in fairly drab outfits and the women in cartoon brights that jump off the stage. Andrew Boyce’s set design, a system of moveable solid and open-frame panels, echoes the structure of comic strips; backdrops of cartoon-style drawings of the city skyline and other iconic images are just right. Kiyama’s original images from “Manga Yonin Shosei” add the final perfect note.
Audiences should leave the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto knowing much more about the Japanese immigrant experience early in the 20th-century, while also being haunted by the parallel treatments in modern times of newcomers to the American melting pot. “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”
‘The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga.’ By Min Kahng. Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. Through Aug. 6 at Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets $40-$100; 650.463.1960 or TheatreWorks.org.