Grit, exuberance mark TheatreWorks’ Immigrants

Immigrants 1
The four immigrants of The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga are (from left) Frank (Phil Wong), Henry (James Seol), Fred (Sean Fenton) and Charlie (Hansel Tan). Min Kahng’s musical has its world premiere in a TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. Below: The four women of Four Immigrants are (from left, behind the gentlemen) Rinabeth Apostol, Kerry Keiko Carnahan, Lindsay Hirata and Catherine Gloria. Photos by Kevin Berne

Think about how often you’ve seen the Asian-American experience represented in a piece of musical theater. Perhaps Flower Drum Song comes to mind or a sliver of Miss Saigon. A more serious recent work is Allegiance about the World War II Japanese internment camps. And now we have TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley’s world premiere, The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga with book, music and lyrics by the enormously talented Bay Area writer Min Kahng.

A product of TheatreWorks’ 2016 New Works Initiative, the show has leapt from the development program to the main stage, which in this case, is the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. It’s easy to see why this delightful show took the fast track to full production.

Four Immigrants Drawing

(at right) Panel from the cover of Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama’s Manga Yonin Shosei, translated as The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco 1904-1924 by Frederik L. Schodt (original Japanese-language edition, 1931) on which the musical is based, published by Stone Bridge Press, Berkeley, CA

Here is a story we seldom get to hear in any form of pop culture, let alone musical theater: four Japanese men leave their homeland to find better, brighter lives in the promise of America at the turn of the 20th century. They meet on the boat, form a friendship and land in San Francisco in 1904 a solid quartet ready to face tragedy and triumph (or so they think). What’s more, this story is based on Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama’s 1931 The Four Immigrants Manga, considered the first-ever comic book made up of original material – a predecessor to the graphic novel if you will.

The resulting production, directed by Leslie Martinson, captures the exuberance of a comic with a sort of vaudevillian/ragtime-y feel coupled with a serious, often harsh story about obstacles, violence and sheer stupidity faced by immigrants to the U.S., especially if they are not white. We’ve often seen the immigrant experience told from the European-East Coast perspective, so it’s especially interesting to get the Asian-West Coast perspective.

The boys start out young and hopeful in a deft opening number that establishes that they are really speaking Japanese to each other (they know very little English) and Charlie, Fred, Frank and Henry are their chosen American names. Even incarceration (for supposed medical reasons) on their arrival can’t dim their excitement.

Immigrants 2

The personalities emerge fairly quickly. Charlie (Hansel Tan) is the chief optimist. In fact, his song, “Optimism,” is an absolute stand-out in an already charming and tuneful score. Fred (Sean Fenton) is practical and just wants some land to farm. Frank (Phil Wong) is the most timid of the group and the least forthcoming with his dream, which turns out to involve becoming the king of American footwear. And Henry (James Seol) is the artist who will eventually create the drawings that will eventually become the comic book that will eventually become the musical.

The bizarre new world of San Francisco and the Barbary Coast is represented by a colorful cast of characters, most played by a fabulous quartet of women: Rinabeth Apostol, Kerry K. Carnahan, Catharine Gloria and Lindsay Hirata. It’s also worth nothing that in the early years of the story (which covers 20 years), they are playing rather cartoonish denizens of San Francisco, from the matrons hiring the young men as house servants to police to women of the night to gambling hall gals. But as the story becomes more involved, each of the women becomes a distinct character, most notably Apostol as the elder from the church, Hirata as the independent-minded Hana and Carnahan as Kimiko, a mail-order bride with a singular mind of her own.

The look and feel of the show conveys the feel of cartoon panels in Andrew Boyce’s fluidly moving set, and though there were apparently opening-night computer problems marring Katherine Freer’s projection design, but what we saw was vivid and offered an efficient sense of place and color. The set and projections, with effective lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt, also create a sense of Henry’s drawings as the go from being simply sketchbook doodles to important documentation and holders of memories.

Kahng’s score is immediately likable and mostly cheerful. His version of vaudeville is much brighter than, say, Kander and Ebb’s (Cabaret, Chicago), but the music (conducted by William Liberatore and played by a six-piece band) still manages to conjure joy (the aforementioned “Optimism”) and emotion (the beautiful “Furusato,” which conveys a deep connection to one’s roots and home).

The special spark of the evening comes from the ebullient choreography by Dottie Lester-White, who knows just how far to push her performers to make them seem joyful and vivacious but never silly (unless expressly meant to be).

Like Henry’s drawings, the vision of Japanese immigrants here is a far cry from the stereotypes that have been around for far too long. These are multifaceted human beings with hopes, dreams, roots and complications, all of which comes through in their expressive songs. These men – and eventually the women and children in their lives – are good friends to one another, and when racism and horrific laws (non-whites can serve in the armed forces but can’t be citizens or own land) and even floods and earthquakes threaten to derail them, they rally and provide sustaining support.

This eight-member ensemble truly feels like an ensemble, each a major player with heart and personality (and talent) to spare.

Though hopeful in the face of reality, there can’t really be a happy ending here. The action concludes in 1924, but we know what’s coming with World War II and the grotesque treatment of Japanese-American citizens. There’s even foreshadowing here with mentions of General Tojo and the emergence of Japan as a world power. But this is a musical, a bright and beaming musical and that, and reality, though not ignored, feels so much more tolerable in song.

Min Kahng’s The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga continues through Aug. 6 in a TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production at the Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Tickets are $40-$100. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

TheatreWorks’ Pitmen paints poignant arts ed picture

Pitmen 1
The titular painters in TheatreWorks’ The Pitmen Painters are (from left) James Carpenter, Nicholas Pelczar, Patrick Jones, Jackson Davis (sitting) and Dan Hiatt as they respond to seeing the work of Vincent VanGogh for the first time. Photo by Tracy Martin

Seeing some of the Bay Area’s best actors collected on one stage is a pleasure in and of itself. But Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters has other things to recommend it like its unapologetic championing of the arts as an essential part of being a fully formed human being.

Bringing this true story to life are James Carpenter, Dan Hiatt, Jackson Davis, Nicholas Pelczar and, in perhaps the most revealing performance, Patrick Jones. They’re all wonderful actors, and to see them interacting and playing off of one another is worth the ticket price alone.

I reviewed the production for the Palo Alto Weekly. You can read the review by clicking here.

Here’s the gist of the review:

To Hall’s credit, he keeps the focus on the art teacher and the miner-artists and everything their success meant in terms of class, creativity and the artistic potential in every person if given the opportunity to express it. There’s no forced romance, no artificial drama, no Hollywood flourishes. But there’s still a lingering feeling that, despite the inspiring real-life story, what we have in “The Pitmen Painters” is less a play than it is a well-argued, well-intentioned plea for more arts and more arts education.


Lee Hall’s The Pitmen Painters continues through Feb. 12 in a TheatreWorks production at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$69. Call 650-463-1960 or visit

TheatreWorks’ slam-dunkin’ Donuts

Superior Donuts 2

A gallery of Bay Area greats. The cast of TheatreWorks’ Superior Donuts includes (from left) Howard Swain, Søren Oliver, Julia Brothers and Joan Mankin. Below: Lance Gardener as Franco Wicks. Photos by Tracy Martin


I reviewed TheatreWorksSuperior Donuts for the Palo Alto Weekly (read the review here), and the official review will be out on Friday (Oct. 15). I loved the show and appreciated Letts’ ability to create a conventionally well-made play that, unlike a donut, isn’t all empty calories and sticky sweetness.

What I didn’t have space for in the review was proper praise of the entirely local cast.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Leslie Martinson, director of Superior Donuts, should bring together such good actors. Martinson is also the company’s casting director and has been with TheatreWorks for 26 years. Some directors say that casting is more than 50 percent of directing, and that’s probably true for Martinson, though she’s clearly a solid director (I loved her Theophilus North three years ago).

Howard Swain stars as donut shop owner Arthur Przybyszewski, an aging hippie who can’t really be bothered by life, which he describes as “a derailment.” He runs his shabby donut shop and doesn’t much care that the new Starbucks across the street is killing his business. For him, the business has been dead for years. Swain conveys Arthur’s detachment while making us care about him. Arthur has made some rough decisions in his life, and his troubled relationship with his now-dead father complicate his emotional life as well as his relationships with his own fractured family.

Superior Donuts 3 (crop)

You can see and feel Arthur start to liven up with the arrival of Franco Wicks, an enthusiastic 21-year-old played by Lance Gardner. If Swain is the soul of the play, Gardner is its spark. He bounces around the set like a dancer interpreting his own original score, and he’s a joy to watch. Gardner and Swain play off of each other expertly, with natural and naturally comic rhythms that go a long way toward making Letts’ play seem more profound than it might actually be.

This is a star-making performance for Gardner, who more than holds his own opposite a seasoned pro like Swain.

There is much about Letts’ play that is conventional, like the gangster Luther Flynn played by the always-reliable Gabriel Marin. Though he’s a typical big-city goon, Luther claims he has empathy, and all that empathy has given him an ulcer. Marin takes a stock character and makes it more believable. The same is true for Joan Mankin as the sort of bag lady /neighborhood drunk known as Lady Boyle. You just know Lady is going to spout crazy wisdom at some point, and sure enough, here it comes. But Mankin gives Lady a little edge. She’s not always nice, nor is she always safely sane.

Julia Brothers is Randy, a beat cop with a thing for Arthur, and her courtship – if you can even call it that – with Arthur is adorably awkward. What could be the play’s most conspicuously sappy subplot becomes its most endearing. And Michael J. Asberry as Randy’s partner reveals himself to be a “Star Trek” geek and a truly committed police officer.

As Max, the Russian proprietor of the DVD shop next door, Søren Oliver gets to play bumbling immigrant, no-nonsense businessman, neighborhood tough and sloppy drunk – and it’s all mightily entertaining.

Superior Donuts was Letts’ encore after winning the Pulitzer Prize for the considerably darker and thornier August: Osage County. His attempt to interject a slice of hope into the landscape of American drama didn’t fare very well on Broadway. I think the play fits much more comfortably on the regional stage, where plays don’t have to shake the foundations of the theatrical establishment to be noticed. TheatreWorks, a company unafraid of compassion and sentiment, is the perfect home for this play.


The TheatreWorks production of Tracy Letts’ Superior Donuts continues through October 31 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $19-$67. Call 650 463-1960 or visit for information.