Fans of Stephen Sondheim have been well served in Massachusetts recently. The New Rep had to extend the run of its impeccable "Sweeney Todd" in May. Both "Assassins" in the Berkshires and a revue, " Putting it Together", on the Cape opened early in August. But the gem of these recent revivals is the joint production of "Pacific Overtures" by Atlanta's Alliance Theatre, Cincinnati's Playhouse in the Park and the North Shore Music Theatre here in Beverley. This fabled show, famously dismissed by the late unlamented Kevin Kelly in 1975, has had few productions since. Its Japanese inspired style, its mostly male cast, Sondheim's elliptical lyrics with limited musical themes, and its ambitious treatment of 120 years of history from Perry's opening of the island in 1853 place it on the fringe of American musical theatre, part modern opera, part agit-prop. But its two act structure which plays the second against the first is clearly Sondheim .
To add to the difficulty, the presentation at North Shore had to be restaged in the round, which Atlanta's Kent Gash has done with panache, making a potentially distant show almost intimate. The cast of 14 plays a myriad of parts with only one performer taking just one role. The complex retelling of this pivotal event in world history and its consequences is overseen throughout, as in "Into the Woods", by a Reciter Raul Aranas, who also becomes the Shogun and the 14th Emperor. Aranas' dynamic presence holds the show together. Its continuing protagonists are Kayama, a lower echelon samurai/bureaucrat played by Steve Eng -- his only part -- and Manjiro, played by Jason Ma, a fisherman kidnapped and brought to Boston--of all places--who winds up a samurai as well. Ma has additional roles. Tony Marinyo, impressive as Lord Abe, the Shogun's chief advisor, later Shogun himself, is their chief antagonist.
The rest of the ensemble play an almost unbelievable range of parts. Allan Mangaser dances the role of Kayama's wife Tamate with grace and skill. Mikio Hirata has the meaty cameo of the Shogun's crafty mother as well as several swordbearing male roles. In fact all the female characters are played by men, echoing Kabuki traditions. The two women in the ensemble, Natalie Gray and Zany Pohlel are ubiquitous kurogo, the veiled stagehands in black who provide all the props, joined by other cast members as needed.
With the assistance of cultural consultant and movement coach, Yuriko Doi, artistic founding director of Theatre of Yugen in San Francisco, the members of this ensemble, all American actors of mixed Asian & South-East Asian descent,, tackle roles from the court to the street, including the parts of Westerners as perceived by the Japanese in the middle of the 19th Century. Billy Bustamante, for example, plays the Commodore--dancing an exuberant and ironic Lion Dance to end the first part, but also appears as a frightened girl. Alan Muraoka, on a break from "Sesame Street", plays the Madam from Kanagawa in perhaps the most musical comedy-like scene, but also the British Admiral bringing a gift of tea to the Shogun, plus five other Japanese characters. Muraoka's moving as the Old Man while Randy Reyes is all smiles as his tree-climbing younger self, as they describe the treaty signing. Erwin G. Urbi is totally convincing as the Samurai Warrior in this and other scenes. Ronald M. Banks stands out as the Russian Ambassador while Eric Bondoc's frightened fisherman starts off "Four Black Dragons," where villagers panic at Perrys arrival.
Hal Prince's original production won design Tonys on Broadway. At North Shore, Neil Patel's setting in the round makes ingenious use of traps and a few pieces of furniture, while Paul Tazewell's authentic costume designs provide almost all the atmosphere. Posed groups sink into the floor, banners unfurl from the ceiling, and William Grant III's lighting moves with the action. M. Michael Fauss's small musical ensemble realizes Sondheim's evocative score using only Western instruments. Everything about the production is quite simply right, including the cautionary view of international politics. The first act could probably be shortened, but nothing is truly extraneous. The Emperor as a child is done using a doll-like puppet. More puppet characters, in Bunraku-style, might reduce the number of costume changes and provide yet another level of comment, and make future productions more likely.
Other musical revivals this summer deserve mention in passing. Newton's Turtle Lane Playhouse mounted a charming version of "Oklahoma" on their small stage with double cast romantic leads drawn from local conservatory talent. Their house character man Jim Jordan came close to stealing the show as Ali Hakim, but Melissa Sousa as Ado Annie wouldn't let him. Stalwart James Tallach made Jud Fry's misery palpable. Across town on the South Shore, Norwell's Company Theatre, who moved into their current space in 1993, did a very respectable job of "Ragtime" with a talented multi-racial cast. One might wish that, although the Broadway original didn't, Turtle Lane had tried harder to make their collection of cowhands and farmers more representative of the diverse population living in the Territory at the time.
The surprise hit of the early season was a handsomely staged version of "Jacques Brel is Alive and Living in Paris" directed by Scott Edmiston for the Gloucester Stage Company. This relic of the '60s sold out. Ticket demand was such that they're squeezing in a short rerun in September before the start of their regular season. There's also anticipation at the end of the month for a joint production/New England premiere by the Sugan Theatre and the Speakeasy Stage of "A Man of No Importance"; music by Stephen Flaherty, lyrics by Lynn Ahrens, book by Terrence McNally--the trio who did "Ragtime". Incidentally at least one more production of that show's been announced for this season in this area. Musical theatre is alive and well, if underfunded, in the land of the bean and the cod. Maybe "Bounce" will make it here someday.
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