Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet an Enticing Theatrical Accommodation at Book-It Rep

Also see David's reviews of Pullman Porter Blues and Wicked

Marcel Davis, Jose Abaoag and Stephanie Kim
Book-It Repertory Theatre had a huge hit on its hands with its stage adaptation of the mega-popular 2009 Pacific Northwest set Jamie Ford novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet before it even opened. Once it did, the reviews and word of mouth were strong, and its run was extended. I made it to a performance after the initial hoopla had settled, and, despite a rather too leisurely paced first half hour or so, can join in the chorus of praise for adapter/director Annie Lareau's charmingly acted version of the episodic tale chronicling the WWII-era romance of a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl, separated by the relocation of the American-born Japanese from Seattle's Japantown district to Minidoka camp in Idaho, and the ultimate resolution of that relationship in the 1980s.

The tale, told in flashback, has as a central figure, the Panama Hotel, long closed and then reopened in the '80s. In its long boarded-up basement are personal effects from Japanese families, left behind when they went to the camps. The rediscovery of the items cues the reminiscences of widower Henry Lee, whose family arranged a scholarship to the mostly white Rainier Elementary where he met his soul-mate Keiko Okabe. Even once Keiko and her family are in the Idaho camp, Henry manages to see her and continue correspondence, but eventually, when his letters are unanswered (actually concealed by Henry's strict, traditional Chinese father), they drift apart, with Henry marrying a Chinese girl after the war ends. The modern day Henry, with assistance from his son and Caucasian daughter-in-law to be and the discovery of a long lost jazz record, is led on a path that may lead to a reunion with Keiko.

Ford's characters are well-drawn individuals, never stereotypes, and director Lareau takes actors with varying levels of expertise and forges them into a memorable ensemble. As young Henry and Keiko, Jose Abaoag and Stephanie Kim are the heart and soul of the production, taking them from childlike gawkiness to adolescence as the consequences of WWII take their toll. Stan Asis as the elder Henry is charmingly low-key in his portrayal of a man who prospered despite necessary sacrifices in his life. Marcel Davis nearly steals the show in the role of African-American jazz music Sheldon, who becomes Henry's lifelong friend, and Marianne Owen is staunch as the tough with a heart of gold cafeteria manager who assists Henry in his visits to see Keiko. Stephen Sumida is perfectly cast as Henry's stern, old-country Chinese father, and Kathy Hsieh brings a warm presence to her role as Henry's peace-keeping Mother. Moses Yim is effective as Henry's son Marty, and Sydney Andrews glimmers with vivacity as his all-American Caucasian girlfriend.

Carey Wong's notable multiple paneled sets feature haunting time and place setting images from the buildings in Seattle's International district, supported well by Andrew D. Smith's lighting design and Jocelyne Fowler's detailed '40s costumes. Kevin Heard's sound design zeroes in on the right jazz elements to support the story.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet plucks warmly at the heartstrings, while subtly reminding us of some of our own country's more shameful missteps. It is recommended, and worth getting on a wait-list for ticket cancellations.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet runs through October 28, a Book-It Repertory Theatre production, at Center House Theatre, lower level, Seattle Center; $23-$42 (206-216-0833 or

Photo: Alan Alabastro

- David Edward Hughes