“Reviewing it from where we sit, the facts are irrefutable”
Many of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals instantly gain the sobriquet ‘ambitious’ and so early productions suffered short runs. But where several have been revised and reworked into modern classics, 1976’s Pacific Overtures has remained one of his least produced works, languishing in relative obscurity. Which makes it ideal fodder for the musical theatre powerhouse of the Union Theatre to take on and revive, with Michael Strassen’s production garnering massive ticket sales before the run had even begun.
The show is set in mid-nineteenth century Japan where their isolationist policy has meant no visitors have been received to the country for hundreds of years. When an American ship arrives boisterously demanding an audience with the emperor and unwilling to have their colonial ambitions easily appeased, the Far Eastern nation is sucked slowly into the coils of Westernisation and opened up to ‘civilisation’. Based on John Weidman’s original play to which Sondheim added 12 melodically sophisticated songs, it isn’t too hard to see why it isn’t more often on our stages.
At a theatre already renowned for its all-male Gilbert & Sullivan productions, it is perhaps unsurprising to be confronted by another entirely male cast even if there doesn’t seem to be an over-riding concept that attempts to justify it. More tellingly, it’s an almost entirely white cast who perform in what could be considered yellow-face. To be sure, there’s a deeply respectful air to the whole production, with its butoh and kabuki influences, and Jean Gray’s costumes and make-up are used effectively, though it is hard to shake a certain sense of unease at the default mode here.
And there are times when the staging with its often intricate choreography threaten to overwhelm the production, over-elaborate sequences disturbing the otherwise cool minimalism, the high camp that occasionally creeps in shifting the mood away from its contemplative intelligence. This is felt more keenly in the overlong first act where Weidman’s book takes far too long to set up and explore Japanese isolationism and Sondheim’s densely challenging score, well, challenges. Post-interval, there’s a freer sense of play as matters move more dynamically.
And Strassen’s ensemble of 13 talented actors revel in the striking ambience of the production. Ken Christiansen’s Reciter, a narrator-type part, is a powerful central presence, Oli Reynolds’ Kayama and Emanuel Alba’s Manjiro both impress in their key roles, and Joel Harper-Jackson, Marc Lee Joseph, Ian Mowat and Lee van Geleen have great fun lampooning different nationalities in the song ‘Please Hello’. Several of the cast take on multiple roles but for me, Harper-Jackson stood out with real promise.