Pacific Overtures examines the inevitability of change as Japan faces the challenge of westernisation by America. Although historically one of Stephen Sondheim’s least performed musicals, the story and music of Pacific Overtures has been made available to audiences as a result of the collaborative efforts of Watch this, Manilla Street Productions, Auspicious Projects and Theatre Works. The result is an interesting and thought-provoking piece of musical theatre that tells the story of Japan’s struggle to resist – and eventually adapt to – American influence in Japan.
Pacific Overtures begins by introducing the sacrosanct notion of Japan’s “ancestral soil” and the undisturbed cycle of its days. The audience is greeted by a minimalist white set, intended to represent the untouched serenity of Japanese life. Indeed the white monochrome of the set feels like a blank canvas onto which the actors will paint the story of Japan’s encounter with America in 1853. With the song “Four Black Dragons”, the musical takes flight seeking to paint for us the struggle at the heart of this musical. The brilliance of the voices on offer by this cast is an undeniable fact of this production, but the pace and delineation of the work originally penned by Sondheim and John Weidman dilute what could have been a far more palpable and engaging story.
This aside, Pacific Overtures displays a highly-impressive cast. The calibre of acting and singing will entertain, impress and engage any fan of musical theatre. Adrian Li Donni, Elenor Smith Adams and Noni McCallum play their respective characters with dedicated vibrancy and sincerity. At times jocular, sorrowful and violent, the combined voices of this cast brings to life a story that has largely been lost, or even obscured, by history. The numbers “Chrysanthemum Tea”, “Welcome to Kanagawa” and “A Bowler Hat” were stand outs of the night.
While the end of Act One signals the landing of America on Japanese soil, it is in Act Two that many of the more complex relationships and dynamics are explored. It is here that the audience has the opportunity to engage more with the two central characters Kayama and Manjiro, played brilliantly by Nick Simpson-Leeks. During the number “A Bowler Hat”, the audience is invited into the conflicting psychological states that made the westernisation of Japan such a tumultuous experience for the nation. The symbolic evolution of the characters depicted through the colour, music and costume in “A Bowler Hat” are the most memorable and poignant of this musical.
Pacific Overtures is a complicated musical that seeks to tell a powerful story, without ever fully digging into the source of the emotion. The fault largely lies in the attempt of Sondheim and Weidman to present a Japanese perspective without ever giving the Japanese characters an opportunity to speak from an un-Americanised perspective. The use of a Reciter leaves us feeling like we are mere spectators, not participants, and for this reason Pacific Overtures never fully reaches its emotional core. Despite this, director Alister Smith should be commended for launching such an ambitious production. It is a wonderful experience to see rare and obscure musicals staged for community consumption.
Watch This & Manilla Street Productions in association with Theatre Works present
by Stephen Sondheim & John Weidman
Director Alister Smith
Venue: Theatre Works | 14 Acland St, St Kilda
Dates: 19 Feb – 9 Mar 2014
Times: Tue to Sat 7.30pm, Sun 5pm
Tickets: $39 – $29
Bookings: 03 9534 3388