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Tokyo Rose by Maryhee Yoon and Cara Baldwin | Review

Keeping the focus on Iva Toguri (1916-2006) (Maya Britto), Tokyo Rose makes no mention of the central character’s husband, Felipe D’Aquino, who she met working for Radio Tokyo, or their divorce, which only happened with great reluctance because while she had her US citizenship restored to her, Felipe was repeatedly denied admission to the States. Quite why her citizenship was revoked in the first place is detailed in the show’s narrative, which takes its time, despite some rapid lyrics set to nightclub-style music, to tell its story. At times progression was so slow, partly due to songs that were too repetitive even by musical theatre standards, I wondered if the plot was unfolding in real-time.

Tokyo Rose (credit Steve Gregson)
Tokyo Rose (credit Steve Gregson).

In an early musical number, it is suggested that the courts should deal with Toguri in the strongest terms, going as far as insinuating that hanging would be the best way to execute (so to speak) justice. It would have been a very short show indeed if the powers that be decided to do so straight away. The production seems keen 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 went to Japan to visit her aunt (Kanako Nakano), who was apparently unwell. I say ‘apparently’ as there was little convincing evidence on stage, of any health problems – wanting to sit down for a bit is not in itself indicative of ill health, and she was well enough to chide Toguri.

Quite what she was yelling at Toguri for was not always clear, as she did so in Japanese, and presumably, she was also unhappy at Toguri not being fully conversant in Japanese in the first place. Anyway, following the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service, the United States declared war on Japan. Toguri tried to get out of Japan immediately but there was chaos, and she didn’t make it out – a recent parallel scenario played out at the airport in Kabul following a change of regime in Afghanistan. So, she sought employment to make a living (as one does). Because of the production’s near incessant bassline thuds (I’m surprised a disc jockey wasn’t credited as part of the creative team), it didn’t feel, watching the show, that there was a war going on, however much talk there was about carrying out instructions. The song’s eleven o’clock number was possibly meant to be emotionally charged but unfortunately came across as gormless yelling, as though sheer volume and a defiance of subtlety would in itself result in an expression of positivity and determination.

Toguri’s war, as it were, was yet to begin, and in protracted legal proceedings the production decides to have the audience bear witness to court sessions – through song. The result is as disjointed 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 instances, different songs sound more or less the same as one another. Six women are on stage, playing all the characters (female and male), to music one would be forgiven for bopping along to. In short, whether by default or by design, it’s a like Six. Except Six has substantially more variety in musical style, with no two numbers sounding the same. Here, there’s unease at enjoying club beats when the death and destruction of World War Two is also at the forefront of the story.

So why ‘Tokyo Rose’? Well, that would be giving too much away, though the curious reader could simply perform an online search that would tell them as much or as little as they wish to discover. Some sprightly choreography (Hannah Benson and Amelia Kinu Muus) goes well with the style of music, and the hustle and bustle of the workplace, although doesn’t quite fit the gravity of Toguri’s situation. Fair play to the cast for having the stamina to perform quite so many songs at breakneck speed, but in the end watching this production was rather more exhausting and protracted than it needed to be.

3 Star Review

Review by Chris Omaweng

Presented by Burnt Lemon Theatre in association with Turn back the dial to 1949.

Iva Toguri stands trial accused of being the notorious ‘Tokyo Rose’, a Japanese wartime disc jockey who broadcast Axis propaganda to the Allied Forces in the Pacific. But was Iva the villain she was made out to be?

Winner of The Edinburgh Untapped Award & the Les Enfants Terribles Stepladder Award, this electrifying new musical tells the true story of how one strong, American-born woman battled through a journey of self-acceptance, only to return home to a dangerously divided nation.

Going live in 5, 4, 3…

Director Hannah Benson
Associate Director Amelia Kinu Muus
Book and lyrics Maryhee Yoon and Cara Baldwin
Additional book Jonathan Man, Hannah Benson, William Patrick Harrison
Dramaturgs Haruka Ueda, Hannah Benson, Jonathan Man
Composer William Patrick Harrison
Vocal Arranger Hannah Benson
Producer Tanya Agarwal
Assistant Producer Marie-Elena Nash
Set Designer Luke W. Robson
Lighting Designer Holly Ellis
Sound Designer Jamie Lu
Production Manager LBRDR
Costume Designer Erin C. Guan
Publicity Designer Rebecca Pitt

Iva Toguri – Maya Britto
Aunt/Ensemble – Kanako Nakano
Papa/Fujiwara/Ensemble – Lucy Park
Mama/Collins/Ensemble – Yuki Sutton
Dewolfe/Cousens/Ensemble – Cara Baldwin
Brundidge/Judge/Ensemble – Amy Parker

MAST Mayflower Southampton and Birmingham Hippodrome
Tokyo Rose
by Maryhee Yoon and Cara Baldwin
23 SEP – 16 OCT 2021


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