At the Donmar Warehouse Theatre: "Pacific Overtures "


Now, even the institutional theatres are helping each other mount new productions. The splendid London revival of Stephen Sondheim's " Pacific Overtures " at the Donmar is even an example of Hands Across the Sea! Not the Pacific, but the Atlantic. This is a co-production with the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, which mounted the show originally on the Navy Pier in its new quasi-cockpit theatre.

At the Donmar , a rectangular raised arena stage was flanked on four sides by seating, In the shallow balcony above, seating was only on three sides, with musicians aloft on the fourth side. This was a highly stylized production in which costumes and hand-props provided environmental and situational decors. Visually both Noh and quasi-Kabuki, there was even the effect of a Hanamichi entry upstage. But the image of the infant Meiji Emperor as a puppet was pure Bunkaru…

Gary Griffin staged an outstanding all-male cast in multiple roles. The multi-talented actor/singers included Joseph Anthony Foronda, Kevin Gudahl, Richard Henders, Togo Igawa, Cornell John, Teddy Kempner, Richard Manera, Ian McLarnon, Jerome Pradon, and Mo Zainal.

This excellent production is so well conceived, designed, and played that it deserves to tour widely. With its fusion of Japanese theatrical styles in telling the often sad story of the forcible opening of the Floating Kingdom to the West-and Japan's rapid & radical change from medieval feudal society to major modern power in the Pacific-it provides a very stylish but topical reminder of what can happen when America decides to make changes in other nations.

Neither Broadway audiences or the critics were ready for its innovations at its premiere. Some reviewers complained that Sondheim's lyrics were too clever, too wordy to be easily understood. Most had no idea how ingeniously the creators of " Pacific Overtures " had blended history, culture, and humanity. Boris Aronson's brilliant settings were dismissed by some as cartoon-like. Director Hal Prince had to abandon the intermission when it became apparent in previews that some of the audience were not coming back after the interval. This was a stunning, even heart-breaking, Broadway production, but it did not have either the run or the understanding and appreciation it so richly deserved.

But, on a much smaller and more intimate scale, the Donmar /Chicago Shakespeare production has sensitively and powerfully explored-even rediscovered-this work of genius. It must be more widely seen!


Glenn Loney
New York Theatre Wire

Copyright © Glenn Loney 2003