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A timely, sensitive ‘American Musical Manga’ at TheatreWorks

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TheatreWorks’ excellent “The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga,” stars, from left, Hansel Tan, Rinabeth Apostol, Kerry Keiko Carnahan, James Seol, Phil Wong, Lindsay Hirata, Sean Fenton and Catherine Gloria. (Courtesy Kevin Berne)
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Toward the end of “The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga,” a young woman sings “Furusato,” which means “home”; the haunting melody derives from a Japanese folk tune, and the song is as poignant as anything imaginable in a new musical based on an old comic book — or in fact any other kind of musical.

Just about every song in this all-too-timely two-act world premiere, created by local playwright/composer Min Kahng and conceived and developed at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, is a delight, from the buoyant “Optimism” to “Sorry, Father,” a plaintive duet sung in a graveyard.

Kahng based the musical on a 1931 graphic novel “Manga Yonin Shosei,” originally written mostly in Japanese by artist Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama, a Japanese immigrant to San Francisco, and translated by Frederick L. Schodt. It traces the 20-year journey of four adventurous young Japanese men who arrive by ship in San Francisco in 1904 to try their luck here.

Eager Henry (James Seol) wants to study art, and eventually does, at the San Francisco Art Institute. Charmingly naive Frank (Phil Wong) dreams of opening a shoe store.

Fred (Sean Fenton) plans to farm and heads for the Central Valley. Upbeat ringleader Charlie (Hansel Tan) craves citizenship and considers going into politics.

Reality intervenes in the form of a variety of exclusion acts against Asian immigrants (the Alien Land Law of 1913, the 1922 Supreme Court’s upholding of prohibition against Japanese immigrants becoming naturalized citizens, the Immigration Act of 1924 and more), the 1906 earthquake and general racism, including anti-immigrant violence.

By the time the loneliest of the foursome send for picture brides from Japan (Japan stopped issuing passports for brides in 1920 due to complaints from the U.S.), the struggles of the slowly maturing characters, set against the social and political backdrop of the era, has become truly involving, and touching.

Under Leslie Martinson’s strong and sensitive direction, the cast is excellent, with four women — Rinabeth Apostol, Kerry K. Carnahan, Catherine Gloria and Lindsay Hirata — portraying not just the anxious brides but also a variety of mixed-gender roles, to great comic effect.

A small orchestra and a few dance numbers enhance the beautifully polished production.

If the first act is too long and episodic (and it is), Kahng makes up for it with the affecting second act. A bonus: Katherine Freer’s projections, which share some of Kiyama’s endearing cartoons from the original book.

REVIEW
The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga
Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Aug. 6
Tickets: $40 to $100
Contact: (650) 463-1960, theatreworks.org

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