Review: TheatreWorks provides a dose of musical manga magic

The ideal immigrants in “The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga” include performances by Phil Wong, James Seol, Hansel Tan and Sean Fenton. The show runs in Palo Alto through Aug. 5th. (Photo by Kevin Berne)

It does not take a long time to realize how joyful it is to be an immigrant in the TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s wonderful world premiere musical “The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga,” running through August 6th in Palo Alto. Four young Japanese men enter the stage, dancing and prancing with unbridled glee, so incredibly ideal and loaded with optimism about taking San Francisco by storm.

But the history of the Japanese immigrant during the turn of the century and especially through World War II and beyond, does not share these similarities with the charming vaudevillians. Like any other immigrant that came to the United States before and since, their vision of how their new country would embrace them, and what those realities actually were are loaded with the juxtaposition of joy and pain.

Bay Area playwright and composer Min Kahng certainly has a hit on his hands, creating a wonderful set of sounds inspired by the turn of the century comic book entitled “The Four Immigrants Manga,” a comic Kahng found by chance second hand. But this is different than what one can consider modern manga, with a rich and detailed color palette. These cartoons take on very bland and simplistic tones, and Katherine Freer’s projections that brought this work to life in the form of the artwork is deliciously drab. This is not an insult in any way, shape or form. What these illustrations do is capture beautifully the spirit of the people and the time, where a young immigrant can imagine that this country is the place to open up a little shop and live the dream.

Each of the four immigrants do a wonderful job of capturing the essence of their characters. There is a mature farmer by the name of Fred (a debonair Sean Fenton), the passionate samurai’s son Charlie (the skilled Hansel Tan), and the gentle soul Frank (a soothing Phil Wong) who cannot become a full American fast enough. Then there is Henry, played with wonderful strength and vulnerability by James Seol.  Henry is a bit of a sad sack, the one character that sadly dances a bit harder, smiles a bit bigger, and loves a bit deeper. Yet his arc takes on a kind of Grapes of Wrath existence – his little piece of land is represented by a store that may or may not come, his sad hat resting on his head, bigger than anyone else’s, as he sings about a city that’s not exactly “The City.”

Director Leslie Martinson and choreographer Dottie Lester-White keep the action moving at a frenetic pace, shuttling time and space nicely through the piece. Music director William Liberatore also brings his A game here, transforming the score into a ton of critical sounds and rhythms that tell such a great story throughout, the music evolving with the plights of the characters. All three have at their fingertips a wonderful quartet of women who play a dizzying array of characters to move the story forward with plenty of humor and pain. Rinabeth Apostol, Kerry K. Karnahan, Catherine Gloria and Lindsay Hirata are called upon to play every goofy, silly, poignant and powerful character in their lives, to great effect. This includes judges, spiritual advisors, daughters, sons and brides brought in from across the sea.

What makes stories such as these so effective is that the story focuses on the journey. It’s a journey that is both treacherous, yet one filled with beauty. To use one poignant example, it’s like the most beautiful foothills that the Bay Area can offer, but right next to a cemetery. These immigrant stories are filled with irony that makes you laugh and cry. The strength of this piece is that you consistently must do both.


TheatreWorks Silicon Valley presents “The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga
Written and composed by Min Khang
Choreographed by Dottie Lester-White
Directed by Leslie Martinson
The Word: A frenetic pace with beautiful history makes the world premiere must see theatre
Stars: 5 out of 5
Through Aug, 6th
The Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, one 15-minute intermission
Tickets range from $40 – $100
For tickets, call (650) 463-1960 or visit

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