2017 theater in review: Reflections on a powerful year

Best of 2017 (inside)

If you’re a theater fan, 2017 was a very good year. If you’re an American, depending on your point of view, 2017 was a terrifying year. Quite often, it seemed, the theatrical stage and the national stage were in direct conversation.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the year was dominated by the juggernaut known as Hamilton, the musical that signaled new hope in diversity, inclusion and making new conversations and new rules even while the country regressed in unfathomable ways. The first touring production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Pulitzer- and Tony-award winning musical kicked off at San Francisco’s Orpheum Theatre as part of the SHN season and played to packed houses for five months before heading down to Los Angeles. The show itself was as thrilling and important and satisfying and moving as everyone said, and we couldn’t enter the ticket lottery often enough (let alone win the ticket lottery). [Read my Hamilton review]

It’s hard to compete with the sheer magnitude of Hamilton, but local stages held their own, especially when it came to conversations about race.

My two favorite local productions of 2017 both happened to be directed by Eric Ting, the artistic director of the California Shakespeare Theater, and both happened to attack the issue of race in American in totally different and quite unconventional ways. An Octoroon at Berkeley Repertory Theatre saw playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins take an old play and blow it to smithereens as a way to illustrate just how poorly we have dealt with the ramifications of slavery in this country. The play, under Ting’s expert direction, was funny and disturbing and confusing and startling and altogether extraordinary. [Ready my review of An Octoroon]

On his own Cal Shakes turf, Ting turned to Oakland native Marcus Gardley for black odyssey for the year’s most moving theatrical experience. This loose adaptation of Homer translates the “soldier returns” story to the African-American experience and moves through time and history and mortals and gods with poetic ease and powerful impact. Music and dance elevate the emotional level, and the super cast made it all soar. The show was a wonder and needs to be shared, somehow, from coast to coast. Happily, Cal Shakes will remount black odyssey next season (Sept. 25-Oct. 7). Don’t miss it. [Read my review of black odyssey]

On a smaller scale, but with no less emotion, humor and inventiveness, two other local productions told stories of what it means to be black in America. Shotgun Players produced Kimber Lee’s drama brownsville song (b-side for trey), a play that deals with the emotional aftermath of violence and the defiance of hope. [Read my review of brownsville song (b-side for trey)]

And San Francisco Playhouse sparked a blaze in the fall with Robert O’Hara’s wild Barbecue, a play that literally flips race on its ear and has a splendid time doing so (special shout-out to director Margo Hall, who also dazzled as an actor in black odyssey and also managed to stand out in the cast of this production as well). [Read my review of Barbecue]

Another hot topic that received some astute theatrical attention this year is immigration. Crowded Fire Theater and TheatreWorks both tackled the topic with energy and imagination. Crowded Fire’s production of You for Me for Youby Mia Chung blended elements of Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole to illuminate the different experiences of North Korean sisters, one who is stuck in the country and the other who makes it to America. The fantastical and the devastating lived side by side in director M. Graham Smith’s memorable production. [Read my review of You for Me for You]

At TheatreWorks, The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga saw local composer Min Kahng turn Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama’s 1931 comic The Four Immigrants Manga into an irresistible musical that, for all its exuberance, still managed to convey the darkness and weight of the immigrant experience. [Read my review of The Four Immigrants]

It was interesting this year that two theaters emerged in San Francisco as homes to a compelling variety of work and became the kind of theater spaces where you pretty much want to check out whatever comes to their stages no matter what you might (or might not) know about the shows themselves. American Conservatory Theater’s The Strand Theatre on Market Street hosted two of my favorite shows of the year – small shows that ACT could never have done so successfully in the much larger Geary Theater. In March, Annie Baker’s fascinating John blended domestic drama and ghost stories into three gloriously offbeat hours with a cast headed by the sublime Georgia Engel. [Read my review of John]

And later in the year at the Strand, another quiet show, Small Mouth Sounds dove underneath the New Age calm to see what drama lies beneath. Comedy ensued in this mostly wordless play by Bess Wohl. [Read my review of Small Mouth Sounds]

Then there’s the Curran Theatre, which used to be a stopping place for Broadway tours but is now, under the stewardship of Carole Shorenstein Hays, something more – a carefully curated collection of extraordinary theatrical experiences. There are the Broadway tours, like the sublime musical perfection of Fun Home [Read my review of Fun Home] but also the experiences you won’t find anywhere else, like Taylor Mac’s overwhelming and gobsmacking and deliriously delightful 24-Decade History of Popular Music.

That’s a pretty dynamic year right there, but I would be remiss not to mention the roaring good time (amid imperfections) of the Broadway-bound Ain’t Too Proud, the Temptations musical at Berkeley Rep [read my review]; Peter Brook’s elegiac and stunning Battlefield at ACT [read my review]; and the deeply moving revival of Paula Vogel’s The Baltimore Waltz at the Magic Theatre. [read my review]

Amid so much that is disturbing in our world, I am heartened by the ever-reliable level of theatrical art-making here in the Bay Area. There’s challenge as well as comfort, belly laughs and punches to the gut (metaphorically speaking of course) and perhaps best of all, real engagement. Not every time, certainly, but often enough that it’s clear our local artists are paying close attention and doing what they can to make change while they entertain.

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 www.theatreworks.org.