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Theater review: 'Tea, With Music' a weak brew at East West Players

November 19, 2012|By Charlotte Stoudt
  • Janet Song, left, and Jennie Kwan in 'Tea, With Music' at East West Players
Janet Song, left, and Jennie Kwan in 'Tea, With Music' at East… (Michael Lamont )

Dorothy isn’t the only one who got lost in Kansas. After World War II, more than 100,000 Japanese women married American GIs and resettled across the United States. We meet five of those brides, unmoored in the Midwest, in “Tea, With Music,” a bittersweet chamber musical with book and lyrics by Velina Hasu Houston and music by Nathan Wang, now at East West Players.

The occasion is a tea ceremony — and an exorcism. In a small Kansas town, Himiko (Joan Almedilla) has killed herself after a downward spiral of loss and rage. As her spirit wanders in torment, her friends gather to reflect on their lives, far from tradition and home.

Married to men of color, Teruko (Jennie Kwan) and Setsuko (Yumi Iwana) endure a double dose of prejudice. Tough-minded Chizuye (Janet Song) clashes with prim Atsuko (Tiffany-Marie Austin), who prides herself on having a Japanese American spouse. Himiko watches these unhappy women with alarm: If the living cannot find peace, her lonely ghost will wander limbo forever.

Led by Almedilla’s throaty soprano, the cast shines in Wang’s densely layered ensemble songs, more resonant than the earnest solo numbers. Houston finds some fun moments, like a first date in occupied Japan, when a GI and his girl are saddled with six chaperones.

But too much of director Jon Lawrence Rivera’s production feels episodic. The flashback scenes play as narration, not drama. Characters come and go so quickly it’s hard to connect with any of them, and a few performances are flat. Houston, who has written cannily about cross-cultural relationships, can’t bring her characters here to sustained life.  “Tea” feels sociological, not personal. Its heartbreak gets lost in translation.

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“Tea, With Music” David Henry Hwang Theater, Union Center for the Arts, 120 Judge John Aiso Street, Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Wednesdays though Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends Dec. 9. $31-$41. Contact: 213-625-7000 or www.eastwestplayers.org Running time: 90 minutes. 

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