Stephen Sondheimis a perfectionist and so is a performer in Japanese Kabuki Theater where every expression and every movement is important, precise and meaningful. So, when you combine Sondheim and Kabuki you get a natural synergistic effect. Each is demanding and exciting and requires no less than total commitment.
First produced in 1976 on Broadway to mixed reviews, Pacific Overtures was a masterpiece ahead of its time. A musical about Commander Matthew Perry's 1853 expedition to Japan and the Americanization of its empire; it is not typical Broadway fare. But its vast and weighty subject is made understandable when told through the eyes of specific characters -- the microcosm illuminating the macrocosm. The specificity is what elucidates the subject and also makes the piece difficult, exotic and ultimately brilliant.
Musical highlights in the show (but not particular to this production) are Chrysanthemum Tea -- where a Shogun's mother urges her son to drink the tea she has prepared for him -- as she poisons him before our eyes. Welcome to Kanagawa wherein Japanese courtesans get ready for the American "invasion" and Someone in a Tree. The latter is a song told from a man's two points of view -- one as a 10 year old spectator in a tree and one as an older man reminiscing about it. It's a conceptually brilliant song and ultimately very moving.
The Arden Theatre's production of this rarely done musical is only partially successful. Scenic Designer James Kronzer has brilliantly set the stage by placing the show in the round, draping the walls with silken banners. A simple square red lantern-like object is suspended from the ceiling over the main playing area. All walls, floors and platforms are black and the orchestra is raised up above the playing area and secreted away behind Japanese screens. The costumes by Marla Jurglanis which at first appear to be rather dull, get more and more colorful as the evening progresses.
Director Terrence J. Nolen has wisely cast excellent singers for this tough score and the show is well sung. However, not everyone in this male cast of 12 can dance as well as they need to. In the highly disciplined art of Kabuki, every movement is choreographed from the arching of an eyebrow down to the last flick of a fan. In this multi-ethnic cast, no one possesses the physical composure necessary to make me believe he is a Japanese citizen from 1853. On top of this problem most of the men are required to play women's roles. Only one performer, Adam Michael Kaokept successfully creates the illusion that he is a woman. Everyone else simply walks and talks like men in kimonos. This tack incurs a few titters (as a man in a dress always does) but little else, and ultimately destroys what little illusion there is. After all, theater is all about illusion -- making one believe something that is not.
The hidden orchestra is very good and the use of the drums to announce each scene as in a Kabuki play is exciting. I was happy to see this rarely done show, but ultimately left unsatisfied with its lack of precision. Perhaps the play would have been better served if it had been cast with all women (Let's face it -- there are probably more women who are triple threats in the theater than men). Of course this is a highly impractical notion because no one in his right mind would have the time or the money to rescore an entire Broadway musical. And Mr. Sondheim might take great objection to such a radical idea. After all, just because something is hard to do - doesn't mean it needs to be changed. It just means we have to try harder. And perfection is always hard.
I commend the Arden for tackling such an ambitious piece and hope they are not deterred in the future from taking on other challenging works.
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