Tokyo Rose by Maryhee Yoon and Cara Baldwin
Stay the course on Iva Toguri (1916-2006) (Maya Britto), Tokyo Rose makes no mention of the central character’s husband, Felipe D’Aquino, whom she met while working for Radio Tokyo, nor of their divorce, which only happened with great reluctance because then she obtained his American citizenship, Felipe was repeatedly denied admission to the States. The reason her citizenship was revoked in the first place is detailed in the series’ narrative, which takes its time, despite a few quick lyrics on disco-style music, to tell its story. Sometimes the progression was so slow, in part due to songs that were too repetitive, even by musical theater standards, I wondered if the plot was playing out in real time.
In a first musical number, it is suggested that the courts treat Toguri in the strongest terms, going so far as to suggest that hanging would be the best way to carry out (so to speak) justice. It would have been a very short spectacle indeed if the powers that be had decided to do it right away. The production seems to want to portray the United States as a nation whose institutions are (to put it in contemporary terms) structurally racist. Toguri was born to Japanese parents, Jun (Lucy Park) and Fumi (Yuki Sutton) in Los Angeles. In 1941, she traveled to Japan to visit her apparently ill aunt (Kanako Nakano). I say “apparently” because there was little convincing evidence on stage of health issues – wanting to sit down a bit is not in itself a sign of poor health, and she was good enough to scold Toguri.
It wasn’t always clear what she was yelling at Toguri for, as she did in Japanese, and presumably she was also unhappy that Toguri didn’t have a perfect command of Japanese in the first place. Either way, following the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service, the United States declared war on Japan. Toguri tried to leave Japan immediately, but it was chaos, and she failed to cope – a recent side story unfolded at Kabul airport following a change regime in Afghanistan. So she looked for a job to earn a living (as we do). Due to the almost incessant thumps of the production bassline (I’m surprised a disc jockey wasn’t credited as part of the creative team), it didn’t feel like , watching the series, that there was a war going on, no matter how many threads there was to carry out instructions. The song’s eleven o’clock number might have been meant to be emotionally charged, but sadly it turned out to be a bar-free howl, as if the volume and challenge of subtlety translates into itself as an expression of positivity and determination.
Toguri’s war, so to speak, had not yet started, and during prolonged legal proceedings, the production decides to have the public testify at court hearings – through song. The result is as rambling as it sounds. There were two main types of musical numbers in this production. One is the aforementioned disco beat, and the other was a slower ballad tempo. In both cases, different songs sound more or less the same as each other. Six women are on stage, playing all the characters (female and male), to music that we would forgive for rushing forward. In short, whether by default or by design, it’s a like Six. Except Six has much more variety in the musical style, without two numbers sounding the same. There is an uneasiness here in enjoying the rhythms of the clubs when the death and destruction of WWII is also at the forefront of history.
So why “Tokyo Rose”? Well, that would be revealing too much, even if the curious reader could just search online that would tell them as much or as little as they want to find out. There are some upbeat choreographies (Hannah Benson and Amelia Kinu Muus) that go well with the style of music and the hustle and bustle of the workplace, although they don’t quite match the gravity of Toguri’s situation. Fair play to the cast for having had the stamina to perform so many songs at breakneck speed, but in the end watching this production was a bit more exhausting and prolonged than it should have been.
Chris Omaweng live review
Presented by Burnt Lemon Theater in association with Turn back the dial to 1949.
Iva Toguri is on trial, accused of being the famous “Tokyo Rose”, a wartime Japanese disc jockey who disseminated Axis propaganda to Allied forces in the Pacific. But was Iva the bad guy she was meant to be?
Winner of the Edinburgh Untapped Award and Les Enfants Terribles Stepladder Award, this electrifying new musical tells the true story of a strong woman of American descent who fought through a journey of self-acceptance, only to return home at home in a dangerously divided nation.
Go live in 5, 4, 3 …
Director Hannah Benson
Associate Director Amelia Kinu Muus
Book and lyrics Maryhee Yoon and Cara Baldwin
Supplementary Book Jonathan Man, Hannah Benson, William Patrick Harrison
Playwrights Haruka Ueda, Hannah Benson, Jonathan Man
Composer William Patrick Harrison
Vocal arranger Hannah Benson
Producer Tanya Agarwal
Assistant producer Marie-Elena Nash
Scenographer Luke W. Robson
Lighting designer Holly Ellis
Sound designer Jamie Lu
LBRDR production manager
Costume designer Erin C. Guan
Advertising designer Rebecca Pitt
Iva Toguri – Maya Britto
Aunt / Ensemble – Kanako Nakano
Daddy / Fujiwara / Together – Lucy Park
Mom / Collins / Set – Yuki Sutton
Dewolfe / Cousens / Ensemble – Cara Baldwin
Brundidge / Judge / Ensemble – Amy Parker
MAST Mayflower Southampton and Birmingham Racecourse
by Maryhee Yoon and Cara Baldwin
23 SEP – 16 OCT 2021