A young Asian American rock singer discovers his roots in "Making Tracks," a new musical making its Bay Area premiere at San Jose Repertory Theatre, in association with Second Generation. With a concept and book by Welly Yang, book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey, and music by Woody Pak, "Making Tracks" weaves together the background of a family whose history encompasses both Chinese and Japanese ancestors.
The story starts in 1865 in California's Sierra Nevada, where a group of Chinese laborers is working on the back-breaking, dangerous job of building the transcontinental railroad. It continues at the Angel Island immigration station in San Francisco Bay, where Asians, especially Chinese, were detained while immigration officials determined if they were the spouse or child of an American citizen. It then segues to Japan in 1918, when Japanese men in America sent for "picture brides" in Japan. One such picture bride is Miyuki (single-named Mimosa), who marries the unsmiling Tokashi (Thom Sesma). Their story continues into 1942, when they and their two young sons are sent to a cold, bleak internment camp in Wyoming.
In the meantime, one of the Chinese ancestors has become the owner and emcee of the Imperial City, an all-Asian nightclub in San Francisco. That's where the Chinese and Japanese stories come together with a romance between the owner's daughter, Dottie (Marie-France Arcilla) and the Japanese family's younger son, Paul (Michael K. Lee).
All of that takes place in the 90-minute Act 1. Act 2 focuses on the present, when the rock singer, Dylan (Lee), returns to San Francisco for the funeral of his older brother and resumes his romance with Grace (Arcilla). He's estranged from his father (Sesma), a physician from Taiwan, but his Japanese American grandfather (Joseph Foronda) makes him aware of his family background through letters and photographs that have been handed down ever since those days with the railroad crew. Genealogy charts handed out with the programs help to keep everything straight.
Directed by Jeff Steitzer, the six principal cast members, who also include Marc Delacruz, play varied roles through the generations. Unfortunately, the program neglects to name all of the characters they play. They're backed by a seven-member chorus that fills minor roles, joins the singing and performs graceful dances choreographed by Joey McKneely. The band, directed by R.J. Tancioco on keyboards, is offstage for most of the show, and the musicians are not credited in the program -- another oversight. The versatile set is by Blythe Quinlan. The costumes, covering a range of cultures and eras, are by Lydia Tanji, the atmospheric lighting by Lap-Chi Chu and the sound by Jeff Mockus, who overamplifies the music.
Although the show has Broadway aspirations, it needs more polish before it gets there. Act 1 hangs together well, but Act 2 needs to be tightened. The music is pleasant enough, but nothing in particular stands out. "Making Tracks" has much to recommend it, including the travails suffered by Asians dreaming the American dream, but in its present form, it'll have a tough time fulfilling its Broadway dream.
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