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Tokyo Rose

Book and lyrics by Maryhee Yoon & Cara Baldwin; Music by William Patrick Harrison; Additional book by Harrison, Hannah Benson, and Jonathan Man
Presented by Burnt Lemon Theatre in association with MAST Mayflower Southampton and Birmingham Hippodrome. At Southwark Playhouse, London SE1 until October 16 2021
Reviewed by Jarlath O’Connell
Published on September 29, 2021
www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

Tokyo Rose Maya Britto Maya Britto has real presence and perfectly embodies the character's strength and intelligence.
PHOTO: STEVE GREGSON

This new musical tells the story of the woman behind the Tokyo Rose myth, Iva Toguri. Iva was a young, ambitious, Japanese American medical student in California who, with terrible timing, was dispatched by her parents to Tokyo in July 1941 to attend to an ailing aunt. When war broke, she found herself trapped and was then given the brutal choice of instantly renouncing her US citizenship or losing her ration card. She refused, ended up nearly starving, but eventually found her feet working in junior roles in propagandist radio stations (there was no other kind) during WWII. She was eventually put on air as her bosses noticed that her natural ease with sarcasm helped them set the required tone. The later accusation against her was that such broadcasts served as psychological warfare against the Allied troops because they revealed intelligence about military losses.

‘Tokyo Rose’ though was not any one individual, but rather a group of largely unassociated women working for the same propagandist effort throughout the Japanese Empire. In the years soon after the war, the character, whom the FBI later admitted was mythical, became an important symbol of Japanese villainy. Several female broadcasters operated using different aliases and the name "Tokyo Rose" was never actually used by any Japanese broadcaster. Rather, it first appeared in US media reporting of the phenomenon around 1943. Toguri was in effect created by the media (her misstep) and then destroyed by them when authorities latched on to her propaganda value in rallying the home crowd.

When the war ended, she was imprisoned for 6 months and shipped back to San Francisco where in a dodgy trial she was convicted of treason, given 10 years in jail and lost her citizenship. Paroled in 1956, she wasn’t pardoned until the Ford administration in 1977.

So, it’s a very powerful tale (amazingly never yet filmed) and given a spirited rendering here by a young, talented, all-female cast. The piece is framed by the trial and the writers give Iva a sympathetic hearing, using the story to explore issues around identity and self-acceptance.

Maya Britto has real presence and perfectly embodies both the strength and intelligence of Iva. In an ensemble of great singers, Yuki Sutton also stands out, playing multiple roles including Collins (the defence attorney) and Iva’s mother. Having young women play all the male roles and all ages burdens the piece at times, but this ensemble pull it off with their sheer vivacity and versatility.

The pop-rock score by William Patrick Harrison, perhaps because it is all-female, gives it all a zippy ‘valley girl’ vibe, rather like Legally Blonde, which infuses it with youthful energy but often jars with the setting. The lyrics mostly advance the plot rather than providing signature moments, although ‘Caught in the Crossfire’, Iva’s big “11 o’clock number” is an exception.

Hannah Benson’s direction is both clean and crisp and draws great performances from this troupe. However in the end the piece settles for an easy sentimentality. You can’t in one breath say Tokyo Rose is a legend and in the next downplay its role and reduce her to just a simple victim. The book lacks the nuance to really explore the mixed loyalties and awful choices everyone is faced with in the fog of war, where nobody knowns how it all will end and the priority is simply to survive.

Tokyo Rose Cara Baldwin Co-writer Cara Baldwin in Tokyo Rose.
PHOTO: STEVE GREGSON

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