Review: Sondheim's Musical PACIFIC OVERTURES Returns to Los Angeles After a 19-Year Absence
PACIFIC OVERTURES with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, with additional material by Hugh Wheeler had its Broadway premiere in 1976 and was presented in Kabuki style, with men playing women's parts and set changes made in full view of the audience by people dressed in black. It opened to mixed reviews and closed after six months, despite being nominated for 10 Tony Awards.
Given the unusual casting and production demands, there is good reason why this remains one of the least-performed Sondheim musicals. So it's no wonder it has been 19 years since the musical has been presented in Los Angeles. But you now have the chance to see it at Chromolume Theatre at the Attic under the direction of James Esposito with musical direction by Daniel Yokomizo and choreography by Michael Marchak for 15 performances running December 1-23, 2017.Set in 1853, the story follows the difficult Westernization of Japan, told from the point of view of the Japanese who just wish to be left alone by the rest of the world. In particular, the story focuses on the lives of two friends caught on opposite sides of the issue on whether or not be allow foreigners in.
The score is generally considered to be one of Sondheim's most ambitious and sophisticated efforts, built around a quasi-Japanese pentatonic scale, contrasting Japanese contemplation ("re is No Other Way") with Western ingenuousness ("Please Hello"), making this quite an undertaking for such small theater space. But thanks to Esposito's brilliant casting and small stage direction, the production shines.
The title of the work is drawn directly from text in a letter from Admiral Perry addressed to the Emperor dated July 7, 1853, in which he announced, "Many of the large ships-of-war destined to visit Japan have not yet arrived in these seas, though they are hourly expected; and the undersigned, as an evidence of his friendly intentions, has brought but four of the smaller ones, designing, should it become necessary, to return to Edo in the ensuing spring with a much larger force. But it is expected that the government of your imperial majesty will render such return unnecessary, by acceding at once to the very reasonable and pacific overtures contained in the President's letter, and which will be further explained by the undersigned on the first fitting occasion."
In addition to playing on the musical term "overture" and the geographical reference to the Pacific Ocean, there is also the irony, revealed as the story unfolds, that these "pacific overtures" to initiate commercial exploitation of the Pacific nation were backed by a none too subtle threat of force.And while the history lessons may be difficult to follow at times, the brilliance of the entire cast to make each character thoroughly distinct, makes the bitter battle between the two opposing sides totally understandable. And this is definitely a singer's show, highlighted by incredibly funny cross-dressing character scenes!
The cast features Paul Wong as the Reciter, Cesar Cipriano as Kayama, and Daryl Leonardo as Manjiro, with multiple ensemble characters portrayed by (in alphabetical order) Peter Jeensalute, Daniel Koh, Marcel Licera, Gibran Mahmud, Kevin Matsumoto, John Sala, Rueben Uy, Julia May Wong, and Paul Wong.The actors are to be commended for their triple-threat performances using every inch of the small performance space, supported by the very Asian-flavored scenic design by Hector Figueroa and ever-changing colorful lighting design by Jesse Baldridge, which highlight the mood of each scene, with the traditional Japanese costume design by Kara McLeod a joy to behold.
PACIFIC OVERTURES continues through December 23, 2017 on Friday and Saturday at 8pm (with a 2pm matinee on Saturday, Dec 23) and Sunday at 2pm & 7pm through December 23 at Chromolume Theatre at the Attic, located at 5429 W. Washington Boulevard (between the 10 freeway and Hauser Boulevard), in Los Angeles, 90016, with ample street parking available in the area. Tickets are $30 and may be purchased online at www.crtheatre.com or by telephone at (323) 205-1617. For more information, visit www.crtheatre.com or call (323) 510-2688.
Photo credit: Ederson Vasquez