A Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Pacific Overtures"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

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note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Larry Stark

"Pacific Overtures"

Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Additional Material by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Kent Gash
Co-Choreographers Darren Lee & Francis Jue
Musical Director M. Michael Fauss

Scenic Design by Neil Patel
Lighting Design by William Grant III
Costume Design by Paul Tazewell
Sound Design by John A. Stone
Cultural Advisor/Movement Coach Yuriko Doi
Original Fight Director Drew Fracher
Assistant Stage Manager Laurie Silpigno
Production Stage Manager Erik E. Hedblom

CAST

RAUL ARANAS
Reciter/Shogun/Storyteller

RONALD M. BANKS
Second Councilor/Soothsayer/Thief/British Sailor/Russian Admiral/Assassin

ERIC BONDOC
Fisherman/American Officer/Kanagawa Girl/Lord of The South/ Priest Two

BILLY BUSTAMANTE
Samurai/Assassin/Commodore Perry/Kanagawa Girl/Samurai's Daughter/Noble/Sword Craftsman

STEVE ENG
Kayama

NATALIE GRAY
Kurogo

MIKIO HIRATA
Shogun's Mother/Old Samurai/Lord of The South/Kenjutsu Master/Merchant's Grandmother

JASON MA
Manjiro/Observer One/ Dutch Admiral

ALLAN MANGASER
Tamate/Shogun's Companion/French Admiral/Assassin

TONY MARINYO
Lord Abe/American Officer/Ensemble

ALAN MURAOKA
Third Councilor/Merchant/British Admiral/Madam/Old Man/Physician/Kayama's Valet/Assassin

ZANY POHLEL
Kurogo

RANDY REYES
Priest One/Boy/Kanagawa Girl/British Sailor/Merchant's Son/Kayama's Servant

ERWIN G. URBI
Shogun's Wife/Kanagawa Girl/Merchant/ Samurai Warrior/American Admiral/British Sailor/Observer Two

ORCHESTRA
Conductor................M. Michael Fass
Violin/Viola.................Michael Loo
Cello.......................Sandy Kiefer
Flute/Piccolo/Clarinet...Ernst Sila, III
Percussion...............Doug Pippincott
Drums/Percussion....Michael Ambroszewski
Keyboard...............Jonathan Goldberg

I don't know if "Pacific Overtures" had a try-out run in Boston before it opened in New York and then apparently sank into obscurity like a stone. But now the North Shore Music Theatre has re-made for their circular stage what amounts to this area's premier of a brand new Stephen Sondheim musical --- a great one. The credits under "Starring" lists the entire cast, in alphabetical order, because Kent Gash (who directed it at Cincinnati's Playhouse in The Park and at The Alliance Theatre in Atlanta) has given this versatile cast a dizzying series of characters (as many as 5, 7, or 8 per actor!) every one of which is crystal clear and perfectly plugged in to the whole. This visiting production is a major theatrical event everyone should be proud to see --- and it puts "Broadway in Boston" to embarrassing shame.

Act One deals, from the point of view of the Japanese, with the sudden appearance of "Four Black Dragons" off the coast: warships under the command of American Admiral Perry asking (demanding?) trade-agreements with an ingrown, backward country that had floated, for four hundred years of isolation, like a cherry-petal on a spring lake. In Act Two the persistent presence of westerners forces an ice-breaking rush of time and modernism that sweeps society aside in a torrent of eager interest in first pocket-watches and then Sony Walkmen, turning geisha to trollops to rock-groupies in the blink of an eye.

Act One introduces Manjiro (Jason Ma), a fisherman kidnapped and taken to Boston then returned to Japan, and Kayama (Steven Eng) a young samurai charged with repelling Perry's forces. It is death for a foreigner to set foot on Japanese soil, but the Americans have surly fire-power. The solution --- to cover the cove with protective mats while trade-agreements are discussed! --- is so perfect, says "The Reciter" (Raul Aranas, narrating) "...that the Americans never returned. ... HAH!!"

In Act Two, Manjiro rises in the government in the meantime incrementally westernizing, while Kayama --- seen silently and lovingly performing the old ritual tea ceremony --- joins militants demanding that foreigners and their decadent ways be thrown back to where they came from. The militants demand that the effete Emperor renounce the hundreds of years of regency rule by his "Protector" The Shogun --- only to find the newly vigorous Meiji Emperor himself a militant modernizer making Nippon the fourth largest industrial power in the world.

And if you think this sketch of plot even lightly scratches the surface, see the show!

You will see officials demonstrating the height of their social rank by how low or not-so-low they bow. You will watch actors negotiate effortlessly in flowing pantaloons trailing behind their feet further than the long pocket-concealing sleeves of their kimonos. You will see samurai swordsmanship (Originally choreographed by Drew Fracher) that flashes with swift surprises. You will watch a quartet of geisha turning themselves into "the kind sailors like" in Sondheim's saucy song "Welcome to Kanagawa" --- and keep reminding yourself that most of these maidens are played by men! Once ice is broken you will marvel at five western admirals stumbling over one another to get in on the feast --- to Sondheim's stylistic tour-de-force "Please Hello". (The G&S-likealook representative of Queen Victoria gives the shogun a present --- Tea!)

There are haiku (Well, actually wryly succinct aphorisms), there are characters appearing and disappearing through NSMT's trap-doors, and there is a long "linked-verse duel" wherein Kayama and Manjiro slowly bond while miming a long trip on foot --- set to "Poems", a movingly subtle Sondheim song.

Every musical is an amalgam of group-effort input, and it would be impossible even for the participants to unravel the strands contributed by Sondheim, by Book-man John Weidman or contributor Hugh Wheeler, and even by Hal Prince the show's initial director. However, the smoothly paced, forceful or swift performances are perfectly controlled here by Director Kent Gash, who moves western minds expertly through a growing appreciation of a lost Oriental society.

Still, the extent and the use of subtle details of research are breathtaking. For instance, as "The Reciter" ends Act One with his cynical "Hah!" at the idea that Americans could be kept out of Japan, a single gaudily dressed figure (Billy Bustamante) begins an exuberant Kabuki "Lion Dance", flinging the long flame-red mane hanging down his back through the air and over his head with sweeps of his neck, and dancing so swiftly his slippered feet seem never to touch the stage. The costume, though, is red-white-and-blue, and Stephen Sondheim's music for the dance breaks more and more into phrases a little like "Turkey In The Straw".
For the figure is really an Oriental stylization of Admiral Perry himself, doing an exultantly joyous victory dance.

And then there is Act Two!!!

This a triumphantly entrancing theatrical explosion no one should miss.... Go!

Love,
===Anon.


"Pacific Overtures" (26 August - 14 September)
NORTH SHORE MUSIC THEATRE
62 Dunham Road, BEVERLY, MASS
1(978)232-7200


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