This one time Broadway musical was inspired by the experience being placed in a concentration camp by the American Government after the fall of Pearl Harbour by George Takei, the Japanese American actor best known as Mr Sulu in the original Star Trek series. It had a five month run on Broadway and in a new, and very good production directed and choreographed by Tara Overfield Wilkinson with Telly Leung reprising his role in the Broadway version has arrived for a limited season at the Charing Cross Theatre. The entire cast sing well, and Leung and Aynrand Ferrer as Sam and Kai Kimura, the brother sister whose story it is, are outstanding. It is staged traverse fashion which means as usual that this shoe box shaped theatre is difficult to make work – half the audience is in the nature of things looking at the backs of the cast at any given time – but Tara Overfield Wilkinson copes magnificently with the challenge. The evenings other highlight is that George Takei, now 85, appears as the old Sam whose story we then see. He has a warm, delightful presence which adds to the show. But the story of how badly the Japanese Americans were treated does not lend itself to the traditional Broadway musical format, the big romantic ballad such shows demand, the dance routines clash horribly with what was a blot on democracy. It is a story that cries out for a straight dramatic treatment in the theatre or a documentary film but not this sort of feel good approach – it is billed as “the uplifting Broadway musical.” The Kimura family are forced to sell their family business in California for next to nothing, their white American one time friends seizing the chance, and are dumped in a camp in Wyoming where they are guarded, given little or no medical help, and treated callously by the authorities. But Sam, who is an enthusiastic patriot, manages to enlist in the army – a special Japanese American battalion is created similar to the coloured ones – and goes off to become a war hero, leaving behind his girlfriend, Hannah (Megan Gardiner), the camp nurse who does what she can for the inmates who are treated very badly. Meanwhile sister Kei, the Kamura with brains, falls in love with, and gets pregnant by, Frankie Suzuki (Patrick Munday), who refuses to go along with the ploy of enlisting and ends up in prison proper.The story line that follows involves death, brutality, patriotic speeches that ring hollow and an after death reconciliation between Sam and his father who, he always thought, despised him. It all works as a run of the mill musical and people who like musicals will by and large have a good night out, but the conflict between the real events and this fictional song and dance world makes for distinctly uneasy watching which the Takei charm cannot do anything about. The ill treatment of the American Japanese is no secret – it formed the basis for Bad Day at Black Rock, John Sturges’ 1955 film starring Spencer Tracey – although today’s likely audience may know nothing about it. They cannot, however, fail to see how relevant such behaviour by governments is to an unwanted minority today. Warm hearted it may be, but it also trivialises the past in this big musical cliche.
In terms of performance and production this is a first rate night out; there is a fine band under Beth Jerem and sound designer Chris Whybrow has coped with the acoustics perfectly, notable because they have defeated others before, but as a show it leaves an awful lot to be desired.
George Takei: Sam Kimura.
Aynrand Ferrer: Kei Kimura.
Telly Leuung: Sammy Kimura.
Masashi Fujimato: Tatsuo Kimura.
Mark Anderson: Grocer, Private Knight, Dillon, Big Band Singer.
Iverson Yabut: Mike Masaoka.
Patrick Munday: Frankie Suzuki.
Megan Gardiner: Hannah Campbell.
Iroy Abesamis, Eu Jin Hwang, Misa Kaide: Swing.
Raike Gohara: Ton Maruyama.
Hana Ichijo: Nan Goto.
Rachel Jayne Picar: Mrs Koori Maruyaama.
Sario Solomon: Johnny Goto/Ben Masaoka.
Jay Tan: Peggy Maruyama.
Director and Choreographer: Tara Overfield Wilkinson.
Set &* Costume Designer: Mayou Trikerioti.
Lighting Designer: Nic Farman.
Sound Designer: Chris Whybrow.
Musical Director: Beth Jerem.
Photograph: Danny Kaan.