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Honky tonk may not ring a bell to a Japanese experience, but Min Kahng’s new terrific work THE FOUR IMMIGRANTS An American Musical Manga, is outstanding. The impressive world premiere musical is based on the cartoon work of Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama from 1904 - 1924 of pre WWII San Francisco. Major events include the 1906 earthquake, the 1915 world's fair and World War I. Director Leslie Martinson worked with Kahng for four years, and this work became a TheatreWorks-sponsored and featured at the New Works Festival. Kahng from Oakland CA wrote this homage to Japanese immigrants and their manga by writing the book, music and lyrics.

A cast of eight marvelous actors four men and four women sing and dance and play many roles. But the four men (immigrants) Henry the artist played by the stunning James Seol, Charlie (the brilliant Hansel Tan), the soldier, Frank (a frisky Phil Wong) the shoemaker, and Fred the Farmer (a dapper Sean Fenton) they takes us on a twenty year journey through the early San Francisco history and the struggle Asian families dealt with. The opening number “Four Immigrants” features the whole cast as the four men arrive at a SF pier and are assigned to Angel Island. The rag time vaudeville score sets the tone of the hope and success in America. Of course that is not an easy task as the story takes a dark edge; prejudice, repression, and xenophobia that was part of those times and still is today.

The four women play a variety of roles, both male and female, and the company of eight are all marvelous-talented actors. The song “Go Home” features the women warning the boys, one wrong move and they will be sent home. Sean Fenton shows off this excellent pitch perfect voice in his first solo “Fred's Plan” as he dreams of working on his first farm. Hansel Tan proves his charm in a company song “Optimism” as Charlie convinces his three friends not to give up. James Seol as the artist Henry sings his first solo “The Funny Pages” that makes the first reference to his capturing his friends ups and downs as they try to survive in San Francisco. Seol has the heart and love for his friends and has a proven voice.

The likable Phil Wong as Frank proves his polished voice in his first solo “Frank's Dream” as he explains his plan to sell his designer shoes. Kahng’s music and lyrics for the song “Sorry Father” is a powerful duet with Henry and Charlie; both longing for their fathers and missing the traditions of Japan. The company sings a homage for the homeland in “Furusato”, that translates to hometown. Seol sings about Henry’s stories and his drawings he struggles with in inspiring well written “Remarkable”.

The clever sets are based on Henry's drawings as projections by Katherine Freer highlight the story and moving screens and flats keep the two and half hours musical easy to watch. The eras move by fast, and nothing is predictable as we see the complete profile of each man. Andrew Boyce’s eye catching set design, Stephen Mannshardt’s lighting is bright and moody when the men have their down moments, but based on the projections the back lightings is perfect. Noah Marin’s costumes reflect the period and the Japanese wear is elegant. The men in earth tone dapper coats and ties and women in bright colors and period designs.

Dottie Lester-White’s jazzy honky tonk choreography is thrilling and she keeps the numbers moving and the eight players are all vibrant dancers. William Liberatore’s musical direction and his seven member orchestra are rousing. Director Leslie Martinson has a passion for this story since she has worked closely with Kahng for four or more years bringing this to stage. Kahng’s love and friendship for these Japanese men are evident in his score that features more than 22 songs. “Money Ain’t So Bad” highlight the opening of the second act as Fred shows off his new six figure income as a prize farmer.

I found it interesting that one the many bits of tricks and turns the men had to do to meet women, and create families for their American wealth was to import women from the homeland to marry. The women in the company are pitch perfect and compelling in all the roles they play: Rinabeth Apostol, Kerry Keiko Carnahan, Catherine Gloria, and Lindsay Hirata are a standout as mail order brides. Of course, Asian men could not marry white women, or own or buy land. Fred does beat the new immigrant deadline to score his first farm. The women on route to America sing the clever “The Song of the Picture Brides” featuring the four women.

Only one of the men is successful with a wife; Charlie and Henry sing “One True Love” as they move on from their relationships. The second act brings heart warming drama to the four men’s American Dreams of family love and pride. I know this show is about to close and I hope it moves to Broadway, yet I still don’t want to give away too much of the end plot. The American Dream is not always perfect as we see in immigration new laws that are being created as I write this review. This story speaks with loving friendship and optimism for the Bay Area experience. “Furusato” ends the story in a memorable winning version going home with pride. Min Kahng brings the strength to this local story that also features Bay Area history that has never been staged.

Drawings by Henry Yoshiyaka Kiyama

THE FOUR IMMIGRANTS An American Musical Manga is one of the best new musicals I have seen since covering theatre arts. I was the first one on my feet for its more than deserving standing ovation. It is moving, brilliant and brought me to tears. I wish the creative team success as this wonderful project moves to New York and garners all the true attention it deserves.


The World Premiere of

The Four Immigrants:

An American Musical Manga

Written and composed by Min Khang

Choreographed by

Dottie Lester-White

Directed by Leslie Martinson

CLOSES Sunday 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

Photo’s by Kevin Berne

Based on the drawing of Henry Kiyama

Cast: James Seol, Hansel Tan, Sean Fenton, Phil Wong, Rinabeth Apostol, Kerry Keiko Carnahan, Catherine Gloria, and Lindsay Hirata.

“The Four Immigrants: An American Musical Manga,” book, music, & lyrics by Min Kahng,based on Manga Yonin Shosei by Henry Yoshitaka Kiyama, translated as The Four Immigrants Manga by Frederik L. Schodt, directed by Leslie Martinson, by TheatreWorks, Lucie Stern Theatre, Palo Alto, California, through Sunday, August 6, 2017. Info:

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