Pacific Overtures ★★★★★


Small is beautiful in this intimate iteration of Sondheim’s inspired musical in which East meets West

When Japan famously featured in Puccini’s opera Madam Butterfly in 1904, the Treaty of Kanagawa – which opened up Japan to the West – was 50 years in the past. Fast forward to 1976 and the events took centre stage once again in Stephen Sondheim’s musical Pacific Overtures. The team behind it – Sondheim, alongside book writer John Weidman and producer Hal Prince – agreed the story must be told from the Japanese POV, by performers either Asian or of Asian descent, and the score that Sondheim produced conjures a Japanese resonance.

This co-production between the Menier Chocolate Factory and Japan’s Umeda Theatre takes that a stage further. It opened in Japan, in the native language, before arriving in London to be performed in English by a cast of 17 that featured four women (previous productions had been all-male). It is the latest iteration of a musical that started out on a huge canvas on Broadway, then scaled down and streamlined by Sondheim and Weidman in 2017.

The traverse staging draws in an audience seated either side of a central platform in the intimate surroundings of the Menier’s auditorium, where designer Paul Farnsworth’s intriguing Japanese-inspired images and video on fast-moving screens create atmosphere from the get-go.

Farnsworth adds different levels near the band above, so that voices can come from unexpected places. They tell the story of the West’s attempts to break Japan’s isolation, starting with shocking news of the sighting of four ‘black dragons’, ships under the command of US Commodore Matthew Perry. They are advancing on the island nation ruled by the Shogun, whose court members have just boasted in song ‘The Advantages of Floating in the Middle the Sea’. In this production, the Shogun is a woman (Saori Oda), resourceful and reactive to the swiftly moving situation.

Scenic triumphs include the first appearance of those ‘dragon’ ships as origami paper boats held by cast members. Ayako Maeda’s gorgeous costumes and Ashley Nottingham’s choreography, with Japanese movement and cultural consultant You-Ri Yamanaka, add to the gorgeous authenticity, all under Matthew White’s sensitive direction.

Jon Chew’s Reciter leads the storytelling, focusing on the larger picture through individuals caught up in the eventual, inevitable Western penetration of Nippon, the ‘floating kingdom’.

Manjiro (Joaquin Pedro Valdes), a fisherman rescued at sea by Americans, brings the game-changing news to court, only to find himself in trouble for contact with foreigners. Minor samurai Kayama (Takuro Ohno) has the dubious honour of promotion to Prefect of Police, with orders to drive away the foreigners. Kayama’s wife Tamate (Kanako Nakano) realises failure would leave the couple honour-bound to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). Kayama and Manjiro become friends but, despite their efforts, the West does indeed meet East, with results both comical and tragic.

Three locals reminisce in song years later about eavesdropping on that life-changing meeting. Geisha girls are instructed on seduction techniques as US sailors hesitatingly engage with each ‘pretty lady’.

As well as poignancy, there is comedic gold, especially in the Gilbert and Sullivan parody ‘Please Hello’, featuring representatives of Western nations vying with each other to win trade relations. Though the transformation of Japan into today’s leading technocracy is a given, the storytelling here never fails to surprise, intrigue and delight.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Manuel Harlan

Pacific Overtures runs until Saturday 24 February. 7.30pm, 3pm (Sat & Sun only). £55/£59.50. Menier Chocolate Factory, London, SE1 1RU.


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