A review of the Book-It Repertory Theatre staging of Jamie Ford's best-selling, Seattle-set novel "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet." Runs through Oct. 28, 2012.
A long-lost love, a history lesson, a message of tolerance and redemption. All factor into Pacific Northwest native Jamie Ford’s novel “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” and its widespread success.
Book-It Repertory Theatre’s stage adaptation of the recent best-seller is mounted with great care by adapter-director Annie Lareau, her design team and a well-populated, compelling and diverse acting ensemble.
Yet the nearly three-hour work can also be reverent and inclusive to a fault.
Carey Wong’s superb set of tall, angled fabric panels evokes via black-and-white photo images the narrow alleyways between old brick buildings in Seattle’s International District.
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It’s an area nearly unchanged over the tale’s time zones: the early 1940s and 1986.
As “Hotel” elucidates, the Chinatown ID wasn’t, and isn’t now, homogeneous. On the brink of World War II, Japanese families lived in Nihonmachi (Japantown), and the Chinese in an enclave nearby — separated by language and cultural prejudice.
Bright, 12-year old Henry (enacted with humor and grit by Jose Abaoag) encounters bigotry several ways. At a private school he attends on scholarship, white bullies taunt him. On the streets, he wards off more abuse with an “I am Chinese” badge to show he’s not Japanese, thereby a potential enemy.
At home, Henry’s stern father (Stephen Sumida) and anxious mother (Kathy Hsieh) decry his fondness for a pretty Japanese-American girl, Keiko (beguiling Stephanie Kim).
Their innocent infatuation is also threatened when Keiko is exiled by U.S. decree to bleak Minidoka in Idaho, one of the nation’s “war relocation centers” during World War II.
Though clunky at times, Ford’s narrative is rich in incident and historical detail, and a suitable eye-opener for young adolescents. And Lareau’s staging of it is enhanced by Andrew D. Smith’s lighting, Kevin Heard’s jazzy sound design, and Jocelyne Fowler’s ’40s attire.
But the script crams in so many short scenes, it can get choppy and ponderous.
Nor is there a tempering of the book’s somewhat didactic tone, and its sentimentality — evident in young Henry’s contrived bond with jazz musician pal Sheldon (Marcel Davis). Sheldon’s a romanticized ideal of a permissive surrogate dad — a hip, colorblind one at that. (There’s also a surrogate white mom, played by Marianne Owen.)
More condensation and a less doggedly faithful replica of the novel would be helpful here.
But “Hotel” is accomplished, and can be very moving. It’s hard not to be touched by Henry’s love for and anguish over Keiko. (Actors Abaoag and Kim have a tender, natural rapport.) Or by the bitter-to-sweet passage of the older Henry (Stan Asis), as he faces his past at the landmark Panama Hotel of the title.
Most poignant is the silent procession of suitcase-bearing Japanese Americans, banished from their homes without sufficient warning or reason.
Such scenes of forced dislocation occur in many societies, at many historical flash points. But this one happened here.