Friday, July 21, 2017

There Won't Be Strumpets

Where do new musicals come from? Some are inspired by historical events (Titanic, Pacific Overtures, 1776, Triangle, Assassins, Newsies) while others (Rent, Miss Saigon, Aida) are adaptations of popular operas. Some are tested in dramatic incubators (such as the New York Musical Theatre Festival, the National Alliance for Musical Theatre's annual Festival of New Musicals, and the New Works Festival run by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley) while others (A Chorus Line) evolved from people sharing their work experiences.

From Les Misérables, The King and I, and How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying to The Pajama Game, Cabaret, and My Fair Lady, some have been inspired by popular books and plays. Others (Cinderella, Into the Woods, Striking 12) have found their source material in short stories and fairy tales.

Some musicals are built around historical figures and outsized personalities (War Paint, Call Me Madam, The Scottsboro Boys, Barnum, Ben Franklin in Paris, Bloody, Bloody, Andrew Jackson, Hamilton, Martin Guerre, Gypsy, and Fiorello!) while others are built around beloved characters from popular literature (Mame, Fiddler on the Roof, Little Me, I Remember Mama).

For many years, composers, choreographers, and stage directors were inspired by movies they loved. Their unwavering passion led to stage adaptations of films ranging from The Producers, The Phantom of the Opera, Billy Elliot, and Sunset Boulevard to 42nd Street, Hairspray, Grey Gardens, and The Full Monty.

Mostly due to the economical power of the Disney empire, full-length animated features from The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid to Tarzan, Toy Story, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame have developed new lives as musical theatre cash cows. Upcoming projects for screen-to-stage transformations include The Jungle Book, Hercules, Pinocchio, and Frozen.

Despite the vast popularity of comic strips, graphic novels, and children's books, such forms of literature have had far less success leaping from the page to the stage. From Li'l Abner, Annie, It's A Bird, It's A Plane, It's Superman, and Doonesbury to The Addams Family, You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, and Snoopy! The Musical, cartoons seem to create a unique set of challenges.

In 2016, a new musical by Andrew Lippa and Jules Feiffer entitled The Man in the Ceiling was workshopped at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley (a fully-staged production received its world premiere last month from the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor). Even a great artist like Maurice Sendak (who designed sets and costumes for numerous opera and ballet productions) had mixed success bringing his books into other formats. Sendak's most popular children's book, Where The Wild Things Are, has been transformed into a one-act opera (with a score by Oliver Knussen) and a full-length feature film directed by Spike Jonze. His 1980 musical entitled Really Rosie (with music by Carole King) will be revived by Encores! Off-Center in early August.

I recently had a chance to attend performances of two musicals inspired by the artwork of exceptional cartoonists. One was based on the work of a little-known Japanese-American manga artist; the other was a mash-up tribute to some of the fantastic characters created by one of America's most beloved children's book authors.

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Many new parents are keen to incorporate memories from their childhood of favorite interactions they had with their parents into the care and feeding of their own newborns. If one were to identify their two main sources of children's entertainment, the results would undoubtedly be Walt Disney Studios and Dr. Seuss. Born on March 2, 1904 in Springfield, Massachusetts, Theodor Seuss Geisl had a prolific career as a cartoonist and author of children's books. Not only did he live until the ripe old age of 87, his books were translated into more than 20 languages, resulting in sales of more than 600 million copies worldwide.

Vinh Nguyen as The Cat in the Hat in Seussical the Musical
(Photo by: Ben Krantz)

While Dr. Seuss's characters have done well in animated television shows and spin-off products, their path to successful stage musicals has been a rather limited one. In November of 1994, Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical received its world premiere from the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis. Since then, the show has been a resounding seasonal hit at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego as well as other regional theatre companies. Although seasonal tours have delighted audiences in numerous cities, the show is rarely performed during the first ten months of the year.

Daniel Barrington Rubio as Horton the Elephant
in Seussical the Musical (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

In 2000, a new musical crafted by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty attempted to combine 1940's Horton Hatches the Egg and 1954's Horton Hears A Who! with 1958's Miss Gertrude McFuzz while incorporating the title character from 1957's The Cat in the Hat into the script. Originally directed by Frank Galati (with choreography by Kathleen Marshall), Seussical the Musical received mixed reviews upon its Broadway opening. Despite the efforts of Rosie O'Donnell, the show closed after 198 performances. Two factors which may have contributed to the show's relatively short run could have been its ticket prices, its inability to fill the Richard Rodgers Theatre's 1,319 seats on weeknights, and its narrative structure.

Jenny Angell and Jesse Cortez as the Mayor of Whoville and his wife
in a scene from Seussical The Musical (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

Bay Area Musicals recently unveiled an ambitious new production of Seussical the Musical directed by Rachel Robinson and choreographed by Matthew McCoy with scenery designed by Stewart Lyle and costumes by Ellen Howes. Despite a committed cast led by Vinh Nguyen as the Cat in the Hat and Daniel Barrington Rubio as Horton the Elephant, the energetic performance suffered from what some might call a wealth of riches but what the Yiddish word ongepotchket translates as "too much of everything all at the same time."

Ariela Morgenstern as Mayzie LaBird in
Seussical the Musical (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

Others in the cast included Andrea Dennison-Laufer as Gertrude McFuzz, Jesse Cortez as the Mayor of Whoville, Jenny Angell as the Mayor's wife, and Kennedy Williams as Jojo. Under David Aaron Brown's musical direction, the strongest vocal contributions came from Ariela Morgenstern as the vain and brassy Mayzie LaBird as well as Katrina McGraw as a Sour Kangaroo with a fierce vocal belt.

Katrina McGraw as the Sour Kangaroo in Seussical the Musical
(Photo by: Ben Krantz)

I must admit to being taken aback during intermission when I overheard two critics wondering whether anyone still reads Dr. Seuss's books. To my mind, the saddest thing about Seussical the Musical is that, with a score packed solid with 28 songs, this show was obviously a labor of love for the songwriting team of Ahrens & Flaherty (whose stage musicals include Lucky Stiff, Once On This Island, Ragtime, and Anastasia as well as such notable failures as My Favorite Year, A Man of No Importance, Dessa Rose, and Rocky).

Kennedy Williams as Jojo in Seussical the Musical (Photo by: Ben Krantz)

I'll say this for the cast and crew of BAM's production: They certainly gave their all for this show. Performances of Seussical the Musical continue through August 5 at the Alcazar Theatre (click here for tickets).

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When one thinks about 1964's Fiddler on the Roof, 1986's Rags, and 1998's Ragtime, it's clear that these shows depict the immigrant experience as they shine a light on the migration of Jews from the Old World (Russia and eastern Europe) to the shores of the New World (where streets are purported to be paved with gold). Each show's opening number -- "Tradition," "I Remember," and "Ragtime" -- signifies an impending cultural shift for an ethnic minority whose travels and travails became a familiar part of 20th-century American history.

Cover art for the CD of Rags

But what happens when everything gets turned upside down and, instead of making an Atlantic crossing, characters journey across the Pacific Ocean? What if questions about their health send them to Angel Island instead of Ellis Island? What if, instead of Jews fleeing poverty and pogroms, the protagonists are single Japanese men seeking exciting opportunities in the New World? That's a whole different story with unfamiliar cultural markers.

Phil Wong (Frank), James Seol (Henry), Hansel Tan (Charlie), and
Sean Fenton (Fred) in a scene from The Four Immigrants
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Instead of being inspired by his family's history, in 2012 Min Kahng was browsing through a used bookstore in downtown Berkeley when he discovered Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama's appealing cartoons in a book named Manga Yonin Shosei (whose title was translated by Frederik L. Schodt) as The Four Immigrants Manga: A Japanese Experience in San Francisco 1904-1924). As Kahng explains:
“The spine of the book caught my attention. When I pulled it out, I saw that the book was from the early 20th century and was written by a Japanese artist, but the drawings didn’t have stereotypical Asian portrayals of their characters (no slanted eyes, no buck teeth) which would have been the norm for a cartoon artist of that day. Because this was a Japanese artist, he wasn’t using those stereotypes. Plus, the story took place in the Bay area. The Japanese title is actually closer to The Four Students than The Four Immigrants because Kiyama was referring to someone in the schoolboy situation (a house servant who takes classes in the evening). ”
A cartoon by Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama shows a young Japanese man
pursuing a woman near the Palace of Fine Arts during the 1915
Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco
“It’s important to note that usually, when we think of the immigrant story, we think of how hard their lives must have been in these other countries. But the emphasis here is on four immigrants who were coming to America as pioneers. They weren’t fleeing a war of any kind or grave situation. They were coming to learn English, to study, and to learn Western commerce. They were coming with ambition, with hope. We start with four bright-eyed, hopeful, cartoonish young men who, by the end of the show are much more fleshed out as real human beings with real perspectives on America. I was searching for an analogous theatrical style to the comic strip style, in other words, early 20th century cartoonish. Immediately, vaudeville popped into my mind. Although vaudeville is very broad, you think of highly stylized acting, songs that are catchy and crowd pleasing, and jokes that depend on bantering back and forth. The women are a source of a lot of humor in the show.”

Cover art for Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama's Manga Yonin Shosei

The happy result is Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga, which recently received a joyous world premiere produced by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. With musical styles that reflect the era of vaudeville and ragtime, its infectious spirit is outlined in a song appropriately entitled "Optimism." Gleefully directed by Leslie Martinson, the opening night performance was a delicious experience that was greeted by a cheering and well-deserved standing ovation from the audience.

Hansel Tan, Phil Wong, James Seol, Sean Fenton
and Kerry Keiko Carnahan in a scene from
The Four Immigrants (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

The action focuses on four young Japanese men eager to seek their fortunes in America. When they find themselves in desperate need of cash, an elder at the Young Men's Buddhist Association (Bukkyo Seinekai) steers them toward temporary work in schoolboy positions.
  • Fred (Sean Fenton) is a practical young man whose sole ambition is to buy some land and become a farmer. He is far and away the most focused and fortunate of the group.
  • Henry (James Seol) is an aspiring artist with dreams of doing great work who ends up making a living by painting portraits. In his spare moments he is constantly sketching cartoons which depict his friends struggling to gain a foothold in their new country.
  • Charlie (Hansel Tan) is an idealist and philosopher who struggles to reconcile his new identity and political dreams with the brutal realities of life.
  • Frank (Phil Wong) is the quartet's lovable doofus who hopes to build a business selling shoes.
Phil Wong (Frank), Hansel Tan (Charlie), and Sean Fenton (Fred)
in a scene from The Four Immigrants (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

What strikes one immediately about this exciting new musical is its buoyant spirit and charm. Even when confronted with the fear of bringing shame to their families back home in Japan, rejection by members of the Anti-Asiatic League (as well as potential girlfriends), financial insecurity, attacks by white vigilantes, the California Alien Land Law of 1913 and the 1917 Immigration Act, these four young men find strength in the brotherhood formed during their difficult voyage across the Pacific Ocean.

Phil Wong (Frank), James Seol (Henry), Sean Fenton (Fred), and
Hansel Tan (Charlie) in a scene from The Four Immigrants
(Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

With musical direction by William Liberatore, choreography by Dottie Lester-White, projections by Katherine Freer, and cartoon-like scenic elements designed by Andrew Boyce, Min Kahng's book, music, and lyrics keep the pace moving at a lively gallop from start to finish. This is very much a quick-change ensemble show, with Hansel Tan, Sean Fenton, and James Seol as the three most ambitious men and Phil Wong constantly winning laughs as the sad sack, stooge, and straight man in many gags. Rinabeth Apostol, Catherine Gloria, and Lindsay Hirata take on numerous roles while Kerry Keiko Carnahan garners the most laughs with her portrayals of eccentric matrons and Fred's domineering mail-order bride.

Kerry Keiko Carnahan and James Seol in a scene
from The Four Immigrants (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Among the musical numbers in Kahng's ebullient score, I especially enjoyed "Go Home," "Money Ain't So Bad," "Remarkable," "Honolulu Hula," and the poignant "Furusato." For Robert Kelley (the founder and artistic director of TheatreWorks Silicon Valley who recently announced his plans to retire after 50 years at the company’s helm) the show’s appeal was obvious from his first encounter with Min Kahng.
“Reflecting the vast waves of immigration that reached American shores in the late 19th and early 20th century, The Four immigrants is a West Coast companion piece to Rags, our recent saga of immigration to the East Coast from Eastern Europe. Though set in the same era, each offers a different perspective on the immigration experience: while European immigrants were often marginalized because of their poverty, religion, or country of origin, immigrants from Asia were discriminated against because of their race. Despite such obstacles, both sides of the country offered newcomers a compelling enticement: a chance to realize the American dream of freedom, security, and success in a brand new world.”
Catherine Gloria, Lindsay Hirata, Rinabeth Apostol, and
Kerry Keiko Carnahan appear as four mail-order brides in a
scene from The Four Immigrants (Photo by: Kevin Berne)
“This show embodied every core value that has guided the company for 47 years: embracing diversity, fostering innovation, advocating new work, exploring the confluence of music and drama, and celebrating the human spirit. The musical was both humorous and profound, structurally unique yet entirely engaging. And it was about us. Set primarily in San Francisco, it explored the potential and the prejudice that faced immigrants in our own community a century ago; perhaps more importantly, it asked us to consider all that has and hasn’t changed for immigrants since then.”

While there is much to admire in Min Kahng's new musical, I tip my hat to TheatreWorks Silicon Valley for nurturing a new musical which requires a cast of eight Asian-American actors. This show offers an excellent vehicle for introducing audiences to an often ignored chapter in American history and will, no doubt, introduce them to numerous talented performers in years to come. The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga continues at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto through August 6 (click here for tickets).

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