The musical Pacific Overtures was written by Stephen Sondheim in 1976 and tells the story of Japan’s isolation from the world and how that isolation was brought to an end through the intervention of the imperialist powers of the 19th century.

It is set in the period shortly before the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the beginning of the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The US, in the form of Commodore Matthew Perry, arrives in the harbour of Uraga with four black dragons (ships) in order to deliver a letter to the Japanese demanding trade rights. America’s demands were followed by those of the other western imperialist powers and these demands soon precipitate the collapse of military rule by the Shogun and the restoration of direct rule by the Emperor. This restoration leads to the birth of Japan both as a national state and as an economic and military power that is quickly able to challenge the western powers.

Gary Griffin is re-staging his Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of 2001. Just as Sondheim makes use of the Japanese poetical form of the Haiku – a compact, evocative Japanese verse that consists of only three lines and seventeen syllables - so Griffin uses another Japanese dramatic form, that of Kabuki theatre. Kabuki theatre has an all male cast, with all female parts being played by men; relies heavily upon stylised movements; and often makes use of puppets.

However, where as Kabuki sets, costumes and make-up are lavish and extravagant Daniel Ostling’s staging is minimalist and austere. A simple oblong wooden stage, costumes of unadorned black robes with a few accessories to indicate rank - a red belt for a Samurai; an ornamental hat for a Councillor – and apart from a puppet to represent the young emperor Meiji, there are no props.

The first act tells of the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry and the crises this presents for the ruling oligarchy of this rigid caste society and is by far the best part of the musical. It contains the wonderful comic and poignant song “Chrysanthemum Tea” which tells of the ineffectual Shogun and his homicidal mother and “Welcome to Kanagawa” which tells of the welcome of a Madame and her girls (prostitutes) for the American sailors. These two songs capture the mood of the era, with an aristocracy unable to act and forced to rely upon a fisherman and a modest samurai to save them from the foreign devils.

The second act appears clumsy and superficial in its vacuous portrayal of the rise of Japan as an imperialist power that eventually dominates the Pacific. In the song “Next” we are told of some of the more modern accomplishments of Japan, such as its military support for attacks on Afghanistan after 9/11, or the fact that in the year 2000 the Swiss bought more Seiko watches then any other. To pass from the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912) to modern day Japan without explaining the equally momentous events of defeat in the Second World War on Japanese society reveals how emaciated this story of the rise of modern Japan really is. The musical would have been better not adding these unnecessary pieces of information, far from updating the musical it merely emblazons its shallowness.

The actors do there best, though none shine, except Jerome Pradon. He gives two wonderful performances, firstly as the Shogun’s mother where he captures with comic exasperation the heightening frustration of her son’s inability to act and then as the French Admiral in “Please, Hello” where he creates a wonderfully comic caricature.

Sadly, this production looks more like parody then an attempt to use Japanese art forms in a Western cultural setting. Japanese Haiku as well as most Japanese art forms seek to capture the bitter/sweet flavour of life. The minimalist settings are meant to offer direct, intuitive insights into life and are at once simple and perplexing. It is supposed to capture the essence of wonder and awe that words are incapable of expression. Sadly, this musical merely captures the essence of blandness.

  Review by Alan Bird
1 July 2003