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BWW Reviews: Blackbird Theater scores another artistic triumph with Sondheim's PACIFIC OVERTURES

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Beautifully conceived by an ambitious, driven director and artfully brought to life by a stellar cast of actors, Pacific Overtures-the musical by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman-seems, at first, an unlikely choice for the sophomore season of Nashville's Blackbird Theater. Yet when you consider the company's prior offerings (which include Twilight of the Gods, an original play by Wes Driver and Greg Greene, the company's co-founders; Tom Stoppard's intellectually compelling Arcadia; and G.K. Chesterton's rarely produced Magic), it fits perfectly into the Blackbird canon. And, like those earlier productions, Pacific Overtures is another artistic triumph, the realization of a long-held dream by Greene (who co-directs with Driver) to bring his favorite work for musical theater to the stage.

It's a sumptuously designed rendering of Sondheim and Weidman's musical treatise on the efforts of Westerners-exemplified by the Americans' rather condescending, "manifest destiny" sense of entitlement, not to mention the British, French, Russian and Dutch entreaties that followed those initial American overtures- to wage economic warfare on the quietly isolationist "floating empire" of Japan. Resolute, though somehow expansive, in his vision for the piece, Greene is admirably aided and abetted by a talented ensemble of actors and theater artisans in creating a memorable production that is accessible to all audience members, regardless of their grasp of the history of the world during the 1850s.

Much credit is due music director Ben Van Diepen, whose 13-member orchestra creates a beautiful sound with their performance of yet another stunning Sondheim score that is inspired by Japanese musical traditions transformed by the more expected idiom of American musical theater composition.  The result is a lushly composed score that bridges the gap between chamber musical and a full-out musical comedy, the type of which audiences may never have seen before or since.

The production's visual aesthetic is nothing short of stunning: Larry Brown's multi-purpose set, which utilizes traditional screens painted to represent a variety of pictures and settings, provides the ideal backdrop for the play's action, while Hannah Schmidt's exquisite evocation of traditional Japanese garb clothes the actors while creating a palpable sense of time and place. Aria Darling's wig and makeup design provide an essential element to the production design, allowing the actors to morph almost seamlessly into the 19th Century Nippon from their usual 21st Century America personas. Finally, the evocative lighting design of David Hardy and Stephen Moss bathes the set with a bevy of gorgeous colors, directing the audience's attention when needed and, at all times, underscoring the evolving action and tone of the piece.

The actors breathe life into the stage-bound characters found in Weidman's cleverly worded and winningly crafted book, and their stories are given their due through the challenging music and lyrics (filled with internal rhyme schemes and ethereal melodies) provided by Sondheim. Capturing the absurdity of Japanese society's naivete and the grasping, demanding nature of Western society succinctly, Pacific Overtures is not the overly serious intellectual exercise you might be expecting. Rather, it offers a completely entertaining and amazingly charming discourse on East/West relations that resonates today.

The story itself is easy-to-follow, despite its structure-it's presented as the Japanese imagining of how American musical theater would present the story-and it is filled with rather grandiose notions of Western  exceptionalism (American hubris is dwarfed by that of the European nations vying for the Japanese markets), which are brought significantly down to earth by the personal story of two unlikely friends, the samurai Kayama Yesaemon and the fisherman Manjiro (Michael Slayton and Tyson Laemmel, respectively).

The plot focuses on American efforts to penetrate the steely reserve of the Japanese sense of decorum and the belief that the ground, on which the island nation is built, is sacred. With the arrival of Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (James Rudolph cuts quite a dashing figure as the lion-maned American) and flotilla of four ships, demanding that the Emperor receive a letter from President Millard Fillmore, Kayama Yesaemon is pressed into service by the Shogun's councilors to devise a plan to repel American entreaties and repudiate the "barbarians" before they set foot on that sacred ground (which is particularly vital due to the fact that sacRed Law prohibits foreigners from setting foot on Japanese real estate). Kayama saves the life of Minjaro (the fisherman had violated two Imperial edicts by leaving Japan when his boat was lost at sea and then returning to his homeland after several years in Massachusetts after he was saved by American seamen), pushing him to impersonate a high-ranking official in hopes of sending the Americans on their way.

The two men develop a plan to placate the Americans while protecting the sanctity of Japanese beliefs-while keeping outsiders at bay-which has the unexpected effect of opening up the once-isolated island nation to the capitalistic hordes from the west (as represented by "Please, Hello," in which the various international diplomats plead their cases). As we see the ultimate Westernization of Japanese society (made stunningly real in Act Two's expressive "A Bowler Hat," in which Slayton reveals Kayama's own seduction by the physical trappings of the Western world), the unraveling of 250 years of isolationism and the often violent response to the changes that envelop Japan, we are plunged headlong into the shocking developments which propel the world onto an amazing trajectory that still reverberates.

Clearly, Pacific Overtures is not your typical musical theater offering; in fact, it remains unique even after 36 years (it first debuted on Broadway in 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial, during which most of the souvenirs were "made in Japan"), just as it remains a rarely produced part of the Sondheim library. Perhaps it is the juxtaposition of American and Japanese musical idioms that may be blamed for the rarefied air of uniqueness that clings to Pacific Overtures, or more likely it is the subject matter that proves more challenging (although our money's on Assassins as the Sondheim work with the most controversial subject matter, or Passion for an even more unlikely Broadway musical) for theater companies. Credit Greene's long-held fascination with the musical for the decision to mount the show as part of Blackbird's second season.

That theater aficionados will find themselves mesmerized by the sheer scope of Greene and Driver's detailed production and its extraordinary artistic achievement is to be expected, but the appraisals of the average theater-goer will be most telling during the show's three-weekend run. Will the average audience clasp Pacific Overtures to their collective, figurative heart? Only time will tell, of course, but if those audiences take the chance, they'll find a vigorously beating-though perhaps unexpected-heart at the center of Pacific Overtures. The story is compelling and it challenges many of your preconceived notions, while providing you with a historical context of the interconnected psyche typified by American/Japanese relations today.

Driver and Greene's skilled cast is made up of a coterie of some of the very best actors to be found on Nashville stages. Travis Brazil, heretofore seen as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire at Boiler Room Theatre and in Studio Tenn's annual iteration of A Christmas Carol, again shows off his amazing range as The Reciter, employing every one of the estimable tricks in his actor's bag to create a thoroughly captivating performance that is at once off-putting and charming as he guides the audience on the circuitous journey provided by Pacific Overtures.

Slayton's sublime performance of Kayama Yesaemon is heartfelt and genuine, his stage presence permeating the proceedings and elevating the performances of his comrades with skill and grace. His interactions with Laemmel provide much of the heart of the production as he allows us to watch his character's subsequent Westernization amid his realization that the very essence of his being is subverted by it.

Laemmel, a stalwart of Nashville stages, gives a performance that borders on the revelatory-he's never been better while creating a believable character and his voice has never been more plaintive and affecting than as Majiro. His performance is confident, commanding and deserving of all the accolades that will heaped upon him by adoring audiences in the weeks ahead.

Among the huge supporting cast, there are remarkable performances abounding, with special attention accorded to Christopher Bosen as Lord Abe, Nancy Allen as The Shogun's Mother (resplendent in "Chrysanthemum Tea"), Jama Bowen as The Geisha Madam ("Welcome to Kanagawa," featuring Bowen and her bevy of geishas-Sydni Hayes, Cori Laemmel, Evelyn O'Neal Brush and Scott Rice-is an Act One highlight), Brad Oxnam and Brad Forrister as the Shogun's councilors, and Patrick Kramer, Maia Cole, JoAnn Coleman (as Kayama's devoted wife), Andy Kanies and Jeremy Maxwell in a variety of roles. Kudos are due Mike Baum, Tyler Ashley and Will Sevier for their lovely performance of "Pretty Lady," perhaps the best-known song from the show's score, that is hauntingly beautiful yet disturbing, and to Katherine Sandoval Taylor, whose glorious soprano fills the theater in her thoroughly convincing and committed performance of a variety of roles.

Pacific Overtures. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Book By John Weidman. Directed by Greg Greene and Wes Driver. Produced by Wes Driver. Music direction by Ben Van Diepen. Choreography by Kari Cheri Smith. Presented by Blackbird Theater, at The Shamblin Theatre on the David Lipscomb University campus, Nashville. Through February 18. For details, go to www.blackbirdnashville.com.


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