Here’s an intriguing tale turned into a clumsy, overwrought musical. Iva Toguri was an American of Japanese descent scapegoated by her vengeful homeland. Trapped in Tokyo when war broke out, she turned propaganda broadcasts into covert entertainment and encouragement for GIs in the Pacific.
Post-war she was imprisoned, vilified, and flown home for a show trial in 1948, condemned for treason as the anonymous imperialist mouthpiece “Tokyo Rose” and only pardoned – spoiler alert, but it really doesn’t matter – decades later by Gerald Ford.
The cast and most of the creative team are female and young, and nobody involved is well known. Sometimes the show shifts fluently into Japanese and it has a winning bravado. Can I tell you this is one of those oddball musical outliers, a plucky underdog triumph, celebrating a forgotten heroine? Sadly, no.
It’s a pileup of lyrical cliché and flatulent processed music, over which the cast sing live. Individual voices are strong but when everyone joins in it gets terribly screechy. Maya Britto is an engaging presence as Iva but she and the rest of the cast have borrowed their acting technique from silent movies: it’s all radiant hope, tremulous sorrow, evil gurning from the villains. But mostly tremulous sorrow. The injustices heaped on Toguri seem extreme until you look up what the creators left out.
Book and lyrics are by Maryhee Yoon and Cara Baldwin, and music by William Patrick Harrison. But everyone multitasks. Baldwin acts in the show and Harrison contributed to the script, as did director Hannah Benson, who is also co-choreographer and responsible for vocal arrangement and musical direction.
She must take responsibility for all the up-front emoting, then, and the over-literal dance routines. But she’s also hostage to the material. The script is baggy with exposition, the score full of plangent piano and echoey drums, like a 1980s rock opera. And the lyrics are something else. In her central big number, Britto’s Iva is caught in a crossfire, drowning in airwaves, trapped between enemy lines drawn on both sides, and in flames. She sells it surprisingly well.
Definitions of character and gender are poor, reliant on props – a pipe, a pocketwatch, a lorgnette. Sound levels fluctuated, props were dropped, and costumes caught on bits of the set last night. But I’m frankly loath to give this a total kicking. Britto has moments of power and Lucy Park wrings comedy from her mostly male characters. The solo singing throughout is genuinely impressive.
And the show tells a fascinating story that hints at wider ramifications: the US interned many innocent Japanese-American citizens during WWII and dropped atom bombs on Japan, but not Germany. Why? It’s a bold subject for a musical. And though the execution is poor, I salute the creators’ audacity.
Southwark Playhouse, until 16 Oct; southwarkplayhouse.co.uk