During intermission, an elderly Japanese American woman, perusing a lobby photo exhibition, calls her son and daughter over to examine a shot of the relocation camp where she was interned during the war.
“A Jive Bomber’s Christmas” at the Japanese American National Museum is rife with such bittersweet moments, on stage and off. Set in Manzanar, the California relocation camp where thousands of Japanese American citizens were detained during World War II, this musical is a heavily sentimentalized but poignant rendering of life in the camps.
It’s Christmas, 1943, and Kei (Keiko Kashiwagi) struggles to keep her fellow internees’ spirits up in fulfillment of a promise to her brother Hideo (Darrell Kunitomi), off fighting in Italy. Kei teams up with her new barracks-mate Mitzi (Janice Terukina) and the finger-snapping Jackson (Mike Hagiwara), known as the “Jive Bomber,” to put on a Christmas dance. When Hideo is listed as missing in action, Kei proceeds with the entertainment--an escape from grim reality.
Written and directed by husband-and-wife creative team Dom Magwili and Saachiko, the show never quite makes up its mind what to be. The first act is essentially a play, full of rich characters and possibilities. The second act, though corny and fun, is a Christmas pageant, replete with big band standards and a too-easy happy ending.
However, the best Christmas stories require a universal humanitarianism, and “A Jive Bomber’s Christmas” richly fulfills that criterion. The exuberant performers prove as adept with pathos as with glitz in this jolly, thoughtful effort, which demonstrates that home really is where the heart is.
* “A Jive Bomber’s Christmas,” Japanese American National Museum, 369 E . 1st St., Los Angeles. Today, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. $8. (213) 625-0414. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.