by Olivia Rose Deane
Burnt Lemon have taken their acclaimed 2019 Edinburgh Fringe hit Tokyo Rose on the road with a retooled cast, score and book and a good deal of anticipation. The bones of this new version of the show remain the same, telling the story of Iva Toguri, a Japanese-American radio journalist wrongly convicted of treason in 1945. As in the original, themes include xenophobia, cultural identity, and scapegoating, all with a six-strong female cast. The show opens with the high-energy and undeniably catchy “Hello America” – attention well and truly grabbed. Unfortunately, the number also represents the pinnacle of what is otherwise a flat, one-note production. The book (by Baldwin and Yoon) is generally good, retaining some of the smart, self-referential moxie that made the show charming in 2019, but is let down by the weakness of the score.
The musical style offers little relief, and while this succeeds in capturing a radio-like experience – where similar sounding songs wash over listeners in a relentless fashion – the almost white noise effect that results does not encourage engagement. Too many songs are too similar and with the same chorus of voices. The lack of musical motif is particularly noticeable, making it difficult to recall earlier events or emotions. Indeed, there is a general lack of musical storytelling which can be forgiven in the more upbeat numbers but becomes starkly obvious in the show’s emotional ballads, scarce as they are.
The choreography was by turns clumsy, clunky, and at times unintentionally comical – the fan dancing is poorly executed and lacks the requisite lightness, a belt used as a propeller is a low point – and the feeling grew as the show unfurled that the pandemic-interrupted development of the production had resulted in a disjointed, uneven finish. The lighting design adds to the atmosphere and tension, but at times is overly complicated for both the cast and operators, with frequently missed cues leaving actors in the dark, and major errors in both acts causing technicians to have to cycle back through cues mid-action.
The all-female casting is apt but feminism, and the impact of misogyny on Iva’s manipulation and incarceration, isn’t really explored within the plot. Moreover, the writing for the male characters does not lend itself well to the female voice. Lucy Park does an admirable job, spanning an enormously wide vocal range, but the effect is unsettling rather than impressive, with her voice being pushed to the extremes.
Maya Britto is excellent as Iva, performing the role with a vivid sense of youth at the start of the show and then an emotional weight that the later scenes require. Her vocal performance is faultless, and she brings a wealth of feeling to otherwise emotionless writing. Luke W. Robson’s set design is thoughtful, effective, and functional, leaning on the structure of a vintage style microphone, and mirroring key features of Japanese architecture. Part of the joy of the original was its brevity, by doubling in length the charm and pop has been lost while the sections of the script that did need space to breathe are not the parts that have been extended. There are entire scenes and songs that could be cut or at least replaced with a few lines (for example Iva’s struggle with Japanese customs), while important events such as the bombing of Hiroshima, or even Iva’s own trial, are skimmed over.
Despite this, there are still glimpses of the magic that made the show so great in 2019. A rare moment of interest was the use of untranslated Japanese to create an alienating effect for audience members who don’t speak the language. Although these moments of brilliance are mostly hidden among the quagmire of similar sounding pop beats, at the heart of the show the voice of a marginalised woman can still be heard, calling to us across the airwaves. I dearly hope there’s a next step for this show, there’s a whole lot of potential and a cracking cast – it just needs to remind itself that spectacle and musicality must be at the heart of any successful musical.
Tokyo Rose tours through 30 October.
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