Pacific Overtures

Stephen Sondheim, Book by John Weidman
Donmar Warehouse
(2003)

Sondheim's musical, which was originally produced in the 1970s, takes a look at an enclosed Japanese society on the point of change. It commences exactly 150 years ago when Commodore Matthew Perry (not the one from Friends) attempted the strictly forbidden by setting foot on this strange land.

It stretches from that time of absolute seclusion to the current days of Japan's global commercial power. In reality, the last 100 plus years are tacked on at the end to give some historical perspective.

While songs like Pretty Lady may be traditional Western musical fare, the main interest in this production is the fusion of East with West. In some ways, percussionist, Andy Jones is one of the biggest stars. At times, he painstakingly follows every move on stage with a sound from drum, cymbal, gong or chime to great, almost cartoon-like effect.

The overall impression that director Gary Griffin, who has brought this studio production over from the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, strives for Japanese simplicity. The characters largely dress in simple black and play in the round in a wooden square that could be used for sumo wrestling.

The all-male cast of eight play up to twelve parts each. We focus on the mighty Shogun, played by Joseph Anthony Foronda (also the narrator), who tries to keep his country pure with the assistance of a junior samurai warrior, Kayama (Kevin Gudahl) and his outcast fisherman friend (Richard Henders). There is also a wide assortment of men and women from emperor and admiral at one end of the scale to peasants and seamen at the other.

There is also a good feel for place provided with minimal set or costume, just a few minor metaphorical brushstrokes and the odd pithy Haiku. Japan is constantly characterised by ritual, whether it is that of fighting men like the samurai or giggling concubines, and the artistic traditions of Kabuki and Noh are heavily drawn upon.

At the start, there is a tremendous, arguably irrational fear of outsiders in this country of rice and screen painting. This is so strong that it leads to the fisherman who has spent seven years in the USA receiving a death sentence on his return. It doesn't take too many years for the realisation that the commercial rape of Japan by the visitors who are eventually allowed in can be utilised in reverse. This is ultimately the making of Japan although at considerable spiritual cost.

The songs are often accompanied by Eastern-influenced, relatively low-key music with wit never far away. However, Sondheim cannot resist a few blockbusters like Four Black Dragons which symbolically welcome the US warships and the multi-national duel of the five cartoon-like admirals, each humorously depicting his own country in Please, Hello. This is a delightful series of pastiches of both music, Gilbert and Sullivan and Sousa (allowing Ian McLarnon to show off his fine voice) to the fore; and characters such as the grinning, tulip-carrying Dutchman in yellow hat and clogs.

The Donmar had a reputation for putting on high-quality musical productions under Sam Mendes and it seems that Michael Grandage is keen to keep up the tradition. With Pacific Overtures (a clever double meaning, peace being as important as the ocean) he has set a challenging standard and avoided the temptation to go for nothing more than a popular piece of musical candyfloss.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher