Stephen Sondheim’s 1976 musical ‘Pacific Overtures’ is a strange kettle of fish. Based on the true story of America’s first expedition to Japan in 1853, the score sees Western melodies infused with Eastern pentatonic scales. It’s so technically complex that a fringe theatre company deserves plaudits simply for putting it on. As it is, musical director Richard Bates and his band perform Sondheim’s intricate composition beautifully, while Michael Strassen’s heartfelt production proves this difficult piece is still powerfully pertinent.
‘Pacific Overtures’ is an American musical dressed up in Japanese clothes. Performed in the style of Japanese dance-drama kabuki, the plot, while based on real-life events, is nonetheless pure Broadway. Kayama and his faithful friend Manjiro find themselves at loggerheads when Commodore Matthew C Perry arrives on a mission to open up trade routes with their previously isolated country. The ensuing process of Westernisation sees one acclimatising with ease and the other clinging on to his Japanese heritage with disastrous consequences. Sondheim’s original intention – to show the apocalyptic effects of globalisation – is commandingly communicated in this stylish production.
Strassen’s expressionistic choreography and direction lyrically uses symbolism to strong emotional effect. Sondheim’s complex polyphonic numbers are handled confidently by the ensemble, with each performer delivering the angular harmonies with loving care.
Ken Christiansen’s reciter narrates the action with a relish tinged with weariness. Oli Reynolds and Emanuel Alba – as the estranged protagonists – could do with a stronger vocal chemistry but they manage to touch upon the tragedy of this Western invasion. There are some delicious comic turns from Alexander McMorran and Marc Lee Joseph as members of the emperor’s court and Matt Jolly shines particularly brightly among a gleaming ensemble.
You need real balls to do this peculiar musical justice and this gutsy production does just that.
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