Pacific Overtures at the Donmar Warehouse


I know that I am not alone in thinking that Sondheim shows are very difficult to do well. I have sat through long laboured productions of personal favourites like "Into The Woods" and "Follies" waiting desperately for the final bows so I can make an escape. I never leave any performance of any play or show even though I have been very tempted because I can often find some redeeming qualities in even the worst of productions. It struck me on Friday that "Pacific Overtures" may well be the grandaddy of hard to do Sondheim. It tells the story of the arrival of western influence in Japan in the 1800s and the subsequent aftermath through a mixture of Western and Japanese theatrical techniques and musical styles. All parts both male and female played by the ten men of the company. It mixes beautiful touching emotional songs with songs and scenes that are a bawdy parody of national characteristics. It could easily all go so wrong. Thankfully this production set on a bare wooden stage in the round works beautifully, thanks to the talented cast and direction.

This is a co-production with Chicago Shakespeare Theater that premiered there in October 2001, and we are lucky enough to have several members of the original cast make the journey to London. Amongst them is the fantastic Joseph Anthony Feronda, central to the production. He primarily plays The Reciter who narrates the story throwing in an occasional Haiku to make a particularly telling point, and he also gets to play a grumpy Shogun and the Emperor. Most of the characters played by the company are suggested through acting skills and a small prop here and there rather than involving big costume changes. Many of the members of the multi racial cast get to play different nationalities, ages and sexes - a  transformation that they achieved from scene to scene superbly.

"Pacific Overtures" is a surprisingly funny show. "Welcome to Kanagowa" in which Teddy Kempner's Madam teaches the local "girls" to be alluring to the American Sailors with varying levels of success went down very well the audience. "Chrysanthemum Tea" in which the Shogun's Mother played by Jerome Pradon feeds the drink to her increasingly panic driven son had me in fits of laughter thanks to the wails of the Shogun's wife played by Mo Zainal. The number that really brought the house down on Friday was "Please, Hello", a song whereby various nationalities arrive in Japan with their presents and then subsequent demands which has a building hilarity that is just excellent.

Whilst the comedy songs are more than fine my personal favourites are the emotional pieces, "There is no other way" is a touching duet about Tamate, the quiet Samurai's wife, knowing her husband Kayama is off on a mission that will probably cost his life. Mo Zainal plays Tamate with a quiet sadness and dignity. Another veteran of the Chicago cast Kevin Gudahl plays perhaps the main role of Kayama, the Samurai given the task of turning away the American fleet intent on making contact and trading with the Japanese on their sacred soil, and then dealing with them once they won't leave. Gudahl as Kayama has my other favourite song "A Bowler Hat", a song in cycles set over several years as he acquires Western possessions and sensibilities.

I do not believe that any of the songs in Pacific Overtures could be used out of context, they are here to tell of an event or emotion tied directly to the story and they work wonderfully at doing just that. Perhaps only "Someone in a Tree" about different historical perspectives outstays its welcome on the stage.

From personal experience my feeling about the subject matter is that whilst there is some small western influence, even in 2003, Japan is still very Japanese. I do not really believe that they will never allow their traditions to be truly overwhelmed by another culture.

Pacific Overtures is complex in every way and this production is a beautiful piece of theatre that fires your imagination and demands absolute concentration and suspension of disbelief, rewarding you with such an enchanting experience.


Lee Wilson
Broadway World