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Theater Review

Not in Key of See

Story of squeaky-clean astronaut's life inspires musical that mostly falls flat.

November 05, 1998|ROBERT KOEHLER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The musical may be a resilient theater species, but there are some things it can't do. With "Assassins," Stephen Sondheim proved that musicals can't depict presidential killers. With the new "Onizuka, Kona's Son," at the Tracy Roberts Studios, playwright-composer-director Nyna Shannon Andersen proves that musicals can't do right by American astronauts.

The story concerns astronaut Ellison Onizuka, who lived the life of a clean-scrubbed Hawaiian-born Boy Scout, then a clean-scrubbed engineering student, and finally, a clean-scrubbed crew member of NASA's space shuttle mission. In the one moment of theater-scale drama in his life, Onizuka tragically died as part of the crew of the Challenger, which exploded shortly after launch in 1986.

We are forever reminded by everyone from Beltway pundits to radio pop psychologists that we need heroes, and Onizuka was a prime hero touted by NASA as the first Asian American astronaut (though Onizuka himself downplayed his minority status). What we don't need are musicals without a dramatic core or conflict, in which the hero is as unblemished as freshly pressed Stars and Stripes.

"Onizuka" is actually less a musical than a long, boring public service spot for a public servant, couched in all the cliches of a kind-hearted children's show. Keisuke Hoashi's earnest Onizuka is introduced as a barefoot kid on the Kona coast watching the night sky and grabbing at stars, and his first song pondering life's meaning suggests an interesting show to come. But quickly, the musical's running cliched theme--how he goes for his dream by reaching for the stars--is repeated ad nauseam.

It's painfully obvious why Andersen pads the work with numerous pointless songs: Onizuka's life was an unremarkable course from good student, through Air Force training to qualifying for the space program, interrupted by his father's death and Onizuka's marriage to Lorna, played flatly but sung passionately by Yukari Asamoto Black. What conflicts and crises there are simply aren't the stuff of a musical book.

And in the most bizarre note, although there's an elongated section devoted to the grief over Onizuka's father's death (a character whom we never even meet), the Challenger disaster is given relatively short shrift, with no grieving and only a reprise of the stolid anthem, "Kona's Son."

Under Andersen's unsure direction, stiff line readings from the cast abound, and though Hoashi is likable, his Onizuka is mostly as smiling and opaque as a happy Norman Rockwell illustration of an American boy. The rare moments of drama shared by Hoashi and Black are as flat as they are trite, just as Naoki Fujiyama's attempts at comic relief are sadly unfunny. The high-tech story receives a strangely poverty-stricken production in which Richard Andersen's light design fails even to suggest a starry night sky.

A musical this blind to its own shortcomings makes one pause at the idea of, say, "Godspeed! The John Glenn Story."

BE THERE

"Onizuka, Kona's Son," Tracy Roberts Studios, 12265 Ventura Blvd., Studio City. Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Ends Nov. 29. (626) 256-1515. $15. Running time: two hours.

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