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Theater review: 'Three Year Swim Club' at East West Players

February 17, 2012 |  1:00 pm

Coach Sakamoto (Blake Kushi, top) trains his team (Chris Takemoto-Gentile, Mapuana Makia, Kelsey Chock and Jared Asato) in “Three Year Swim Club.”

This review as been corrected. See below for details.

For every visionary who endures mockery and adversity to realize his or her dreams, millions of other visionaries endure mockery and adversity and then go back to their day jobs. We don’t hear so much about those visionaries. As dramas from “Henry V” to “The Bad News Bears” attest, there’s little more satisfying than watching an unconventional prophet lead an unpromising team to victory against all odds.

East West Players is presenting the “mainland premiere” of “Three Year Swim Club,” a play in this tradition by the Hawaiian writer Lee Tonouchi, based on the true story of Soichi Sakamoto, a science teacher in Maui who, in 1937, decided to turn the children of sugar cane workers into an Olympic swim team — despite not being a swimmer himself or having access to a pool.

Sakamoto developed his training regimen by observing animals in nature, and the kids swam in the plantation’s irrigation ditches. Somehow you know right from the outset that neither the jeering of the other islanders nor even the cancellation of the 1940 Olympics (because of WWII) can deter this plucky bunch.

Although the story is predictable, it is well told, with affectionate, lively characterizations, gentle humor and fresh ingredients. The characters speak in pidgin English — Tonouchi is a pro-pidgin activist who calls himself “Da Pidgin Guerrilla” — which is easy to follow and enhances the charm of this production’s entirely Hawaii-born cast, including Jared Asato as humble hero Keo, Mapuana Makia as his spirited love interest, Kelsey Chock as blustery but sweet-natured Halo, Blake Kushi as the stalwart coach and Kaliko Kauahi as his drily witty wife.

Director and choreographer Keo Woolford uses hula-inspired dance to evoke swimming; the routines are beautiful if a bit monotonous (like swimming itself, actually). Adam Flemming’s striking set includes a raffia backdrop where he projects flickering images, and an alluring blue glow represents the irrigation ditch. All of these elements come together to warm your heart so powerfully that you may feel it has vacationed in Maui.

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“Three Year Swim Club.”David Henry Hwang Theater, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., L.A. 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Ends March 11. $26 to $36. (213) 625-7000 or www.eastwestplayers.org. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

[For the record: An earlier version of this review misspelled Jared Asato.]

Photo: Coach Sakamoto (Blake Kushi, top) trains his team (Chris Takemoto-Gentile, Mapuana Makia, Kelsey Chock and Jared Asato) in “Three Year Swim Club.” Credit: Michael Lamont.

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