Musical from the American melting pot

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Tuesday July 18, 2017
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You'd almost think it was Barnaby and Cornelius, putting on their Sunday clothes and discovering a world outside of Yonkers. But instead of the turn-of-the-century characters of "Hello, Dolly!" making the bold leap into Manhattan, these buoyant lads in their occidental finery have headed from Japan to San Francisco. They herald their journey in song-and-dance style that gives its regards to Broadway with nary a nostalgic look back. That's to come, but mostly the title characters in "The Four Immigrants" are taking in their new land in the rhythms of ragtime, vaudeville, and the spirit of Jerry Herman.

The source material for this new musical that TheatreWorks is presenting at its Palo Alto venue is reflected in its subtitle: "An American Musical Manga." Based on his own experiences as an aspiring Japanese artist recently arrived in San Francisco, Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama created a series of comic-strip panels that he self-published as a book in 1931 after returning to Japan, making it arguably one of the first illustrated novels. "Manga Yonin Shosei" became a largely lost artifact, with the first English translation not appearing until 1998. It was three years ago that playwright and composer Min Kahng stumbled upon it in a used-book store, and so began the process leading to the current world premiere.

In various ways, "The Four Immigrants" acknowledges its comic-strip roots, with projections announcing the passing years, and the scenes often played as stylized vignettes, with occasional drawings from Kiyama's book displayed in parallel to the action on stage. Kahng's songs contribute to this spirit with catchy melodies and uncomplicated lyrics.

The four buddies who arrive together in San Francisco each have very different dreams of what their lives in their new homeland will look like. Starting with menial jobs, they stumble forwards, backwards, and sideways as opportunities arise and barriers appear. They live through the horror of the 1906 earthquake, the optimism of the 1915 Pan-Pacific International Exposition, and service in the First World War that they expect will help end laws against gaining citizenship and owning land. But true to the original source, Kahng doesn't let us stray far from a comic-book world where tomorrow is always another day, and director Leslie Martinson makes sure the sun will come out with her upbeat direction.

The cast of eight is evenly split between men and women, with the women playing multiple roles of both sexes and various nationalities mostly in cartoonish fashion. Kerry K. Carnahan is a domineering mail-order bride and a Chinatown gambling-hall hustler, and Lindsay Hirata is a play-acting geisha girl at the exposition's Japanese tearoom who moonlights as a hoochie-coochie girl making the strongest impressions. The men, on the other hand, are solidly identified with their individual roles. They are a motley but brotherly crew painted with bright individuality by the performers.

Hansel Tan is able to find nuance in Charlie, the de facto leader of the quartet, while still exploding with optimistic energy that finds memorable expression in Dottie Lester-White's choreography. Phil Wong endearingly plays Frank, whose big dream is to sell shoes, as a bit of a dim-bulb with a sensitive filament. Sean Fenton brings brash bravado to Fred, the one member of the group to strike it rich, while James Seol gives Henry, the artist of the group, the intensity of a passionate observer who would go on to write the musical's source material.

Computer problems on opening night limited the projections meant to fill out Andrew Boyce's scenic design, but Noah Marin's costumes capture the comic-book spirit of the piece. William Liberatore, TheatreWorks' resident musical director, again displays his ability to get a rich sound from a chamber-sized orchestra.

"The Four Immigrants" is a melting-pot musical, both in its story and in its style. The takeaway song is titled "Optimism," and that's the spirit that sends us out of the theater.


"The Four Immigrants" will run through Aug. 6 at the Lucie Stern Theatre. Tickets are $40-$100. Call (650) 463-1960 or go to