In the same week as Cameron Mackintosh announces his plans to build a new theatre in London to be called the Sondheim and emulating the spaces at the Donmar Warehouse and the Almeida, the Donmar welcomes Gary Griffin's production of Pacific Overtures, Sondheim and John Weidman's theatrical blend of Japanese Kabuki and Noh theatre with Western musical. Originally premiering at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 2001 and with three of the cast reprising their roles in London, this all-male production sounds remarkably similar to the one my colleague Kathryn Osenlund saw last month in Philadelphia. ( Pacific Overtures in Philadelphia )
Joseph Anthony Foronda skilfully narrates taking us through the events in Japan of the 1850s in detail and in the last song rapidly bringing us up to the present day. Holding his golden fan expressively, he delivers Sondheim's wonderfully lucid lyrics. All the female parts are played by men with hairbands and pink flowers with exaggerated tiny footsteps in a gender bending fest.
The voices are all top notch and the lyrics completely clear, so that although this is the first time I have seen Pacific Overtures I had no problem following the storyline. Some of the early songs struck me as very similar to modern opera (the English National Opera mounted such a production of Pacific Overtures recently) but this interpretation from Gary Griffin is quite light hearted and tongue in cheek. There is, however, a mix with the purely melodic as in the pretty staccato "Chrysanthemum Tea" as the Shogun's mother tries to alert him to the danger sitting in the bay. The brothel keeper's song "Welcome to Kanagawa" is high camp as Teddy Kempner as the Madame leads his "girls" in a comic interlude instructing them in how to entertain the visiting Americans. I liked too "Four Black Dragons" the song about the invading fleet.
The first act closes with a wonderful lion dance sequence from Richard Manera as one of the Americans dressed as a devil who comes back to dance on Japanese territory after the fleet has left. The Americans unknowingly only stood on mats and entered temporary housing so that they technically had not set foot on Japanese territory to preserve Japanese honour.
The child emperor is played by a rod puppet that grows in size as he grows older which is quite effective. The crowd pleasing parade of the generals has homages to Gilbert and Sullivan, a Dutch clog dance, a song full of Cossack pride in "Don't Touch the Coat" and finishes on a French bar song Apache with the French general in beret and tricolour scarf. We watch as American and European influence transforms Kayama (Kevin Gudahl) the traditional Samurai to a Westernised bowler hatted, cigar smoking, spectacle wearing, frock coated diplomat in "A Bowler Hat" to a very pretty musical accompaniment. In "Pretty Lady" we feel the threat to one Japanese woman (Mo Zainal) from three sailors. The finale "Next" is an over rapid sweep up to the present day.
The Donmar audience has been rearranged from its usual three sides to place this production in the round and there is almost no scenery apart from a polished wooden floor. The ensemble performances are superb. There is more intellectual appeal in Pacific Overtures , a musical portrayal of the floating kingdom of Japan, than in most of the musical genre.
by Lizzie Loveridge