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The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga

The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga. Book, Music and Lyrics by Min Kahng. Directed by Leslie Martinson. TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA.

TheatreWorks may have scored one of the most important world premieres of the century in Min Kahng’s adaptation of one of the first graphic novels, Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama’s 1931 The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco. This sparkling, creative adventure follows four Japanese immigrants as they struggle with creating new identities and the loss of cultural identity in turn-of-the century America. Leslie Martinson has assembled a remarkable cast and master technical crew to bring Kahng’s musical vision to fruition. The result is a stunning work of great humor and touching humanity.

Three years in the making, award-winning playwright and composer Kahng did extensive research on the Issei, the first generation of Japanese immigrants who arrived in America between 1885 and 1924. In The Four Immigrants, we’re introduced to Charlie, Fred, Frank and Henry, each with their unique dreams of conquering their new San Francisco digs. Following their stories from 1904 – 1924, the play incorporates prejudice, repression and xenophobia that existed then and to this day.

The four immigrants: Frank (Phil Wong), Henry (James Seol), Fred (Sean Fenton) and Charlie (Hansel Tan). Photo by Kevin Berne.

Quarantined for an eye infection, the four compatriots long for home (“Go Home”) but commit to making it. “Optimism” sung by the ever-hopeful Charlie, will become a returning theme. We’re introduced to the men’s hopes: a shoe salesman, a farmer in the Central Valley, an artist.  Four unnamed women play a variety of supporting roles, both male and female, and the combined cast of eight are all multi-talented wonders.

Kahng’s music and lyrics are wonderful. “Sorry Father” is a poignant duet sung by Henry and Charlie; both homesick for their fathers and feeling thee separation from tradition that engulfs them. The company will sing of this longing for the homeland in “Furusato”, a Japanese word meaning hometown.  Henry the artist who captures the friend’s stories in his graphic cartoons, struggles with the concept of art in the lovely “Remarkable”.

The whole production has a comic book feels, greatly enhanced by Andrew Boyce’s set sliding and rising set design, Stephen Mannshardt’s lighting, Noah Marin’s costumes and Dottie Lester-White’s fine choreography. William Liberatore’s musical direction is once again superlative. Director Leslie Martinson makes this musical sing; something is always moving and there isn’t a spare slack moment.

The cast is immensely talented, both as actors conveying the intrepid newcomers and as comics bringing out the humor in even the direst of situations. All eight are equally important to this piece and must be equally credited: Hansel Tan (Charlie), Sean Fenton (Fred), Phil Wong (Frank), James Sedol (Henry), Rinabeth Apostol (Woman 1), Kerry K. Carnahan (Woman 2), Catherine Gloria (Woman 3) and Lindsay Hirata as Woman 4. Excellent performances by all.

The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga is one of those rare moments when all the stars are aligned; a harmonic convergence that produces brilliant theatre. TheatreWorks has breathed life into Kahng’s vision; hopefully it will have a very, very long life.

Performances run through August 6th, 22017 www.theatreworks.org   650.463.1960