Smart but hopelessly sterile


Charles Spencer reviews Pacific Overtures at the Donmar Warehouse

Even by the demanding standards of Stephen Sondheim, Pacific Overtures is an exceptionally daunting musical. As the man himself remarked, shortly before the show opened on Broadway in 1976, it is one of "the most bizarre and unusual musicals ever to be seen in a commercial setting", and, as so often with Sondheim, it proved caviar to the general, closing after 193 performances with the loss of its entire investment.

There are some, of course - and they are extremely vociferous - who believe that Sondheim can do no wrong. I'm more sceptical about his godlike genius. He has written some superb works of musical theatre - the lyrics for West Side Story and Gypsy, the music and lyrics for Sweeney Todd, Company and A Little Night Music. But is it entirely heretical to suggest that he can also be a crashing bore? Certainly I would pay good money to avoid sitting through Passion, Into the Woods and Assassins ever again. And the same goes for Pacific Overtures, even though it is blessed with a couple of his most hauntingly melodic numbers.

The spirit of Brecht hangs over this show like the shadow of death. This isn't so much a musical as a political fable, telling the story of the ending of Japan's isolation from the rest of the world, and the beginning of its life as a trading nation in the mid-19th century. Since Americans were the first to breach Japan's insularity, and much was lost as well as gained by their arrival, the piece possibly has a spurious topicality at a time when many regard the present US administration as a bunch of wicked imperialist adventurers.

What I find more disturbing about the show is its distasteful colonisation of Japanese culture. Both Hal Prince's original production, and this new revival directed by Gary Griffin, borrow freely from Kabuki and Noh theatre, just as Sondheim's score borrows from Japanese musical styles. But the effect isn't so much homage as pastiche and occasionally outright piss-take. It is impossible to imagine the show's creators getting away with such a mocking magpie approach had they set a musical, for instance, in the townships of South Africa during apartheid. For some reason, it is still acceptable to stereotype the Japanese.

The kimono-clad actors suddenly start shrieking in the middle of sentences, haiku are delivered with satirical sententiousness, and the whole show sometimes seems like a "Carry On Up Mount Fuji", only nothing like as funny.

It's the aridity of the whole experience that finally left me groaning, however. There isn't a single character you come to care about, not a moment when the show grips at a visceral level. Pacific Overtures is terribly smart - and entirely sterile. The one exception is the music. True, at times it's all plinkety-plonk japonaiserie but in such numbers as There Is No Other Way and Pretty Lady, Sondheim achieves that slightly rancid melodic sweetness that is his alone.

Despite some strong performances, most notably from Joseph Anthony Foronda as an authoritative narrator, and Mo Zainal, who is a bewitchingly androgynous delight in most of the female roles, Griffin's stylishly minimal in-the-round production cannot disguise the fact that John Weidman's book is a ploddingly facetious bore, or that the whole show lacks pace and pep.

What's missing is a single moment that grabs you with either uncomplicated joy or a piercing stab of emotion. Needless to say, the Sondheim nuts in the first night audience went wild. Others are likely to find the piece more of a penance than a pleasurable night of eastern promise.

  Charles Spencer
The Daily Telegraph