Thursday 1 March 2018

Pacific Overtures an unsung Sondheim oddity with moments of sharp fun
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : Fighting Chance Productions' resurrection in 2018 of the 1976 Stephen Sondheim show Pacific Overtures puts a new spin on the original. Whereas the Hal Prince extravaganza featured 31 characters, FCP uses but 12 to depict the lot. And then stage it in the cozy confines of PAL theatre on Cordero.

The storyline is rich and spare at the same time. In 1853 Admiral Matthew C. Perry and a phalanx of four warships descended on Uraga intent on establishing trade relations with Japan. Perry referred to the Yankee approach -- without a hint of irony at its double entendre -- as "very reasonable and pacific overtures". And we all know how those overtures have played themselves out. 

Playing the role of Mother who poisons her feckless Lord of a son with Chrysanthemum Tea, Thomas Chan (left) is a splendid villain. The Lord's samurai protector Kayama (Jason Lam) can only look on helplessly .
Photo credit : Allyson Fournier Photography
The show's book by John Weidman tells the tale of traditional Japanese culture being overwhelmed by the Western invasion through the eyes of a fisherman and a samurai. Sondheim employs traditional Japanese music by using a pentatonic (5-note) scale rather than stick to the familiar Western 7-note version. Lyrics are often expressed with haiku simplicity thanks to the form's poignance. Compare the "barbaric yawp" of Walt Whitman's Songs for Myself to get the picture.

How it's all put together : The capitalization of Japan wrenched it away from its "changeless" relatively simple domestic traditions such as planting and harvesting rice, flower arranging, tea ceremonies, endless painted screens sliding about and calligraphy. The transformation is told and dramatized by two primary characters, Kayama, the police prefect, and the fisherman Manjiro who was lost at sea and subsequently spent six years in Boston after being rescued by American sailors. As the play progresses Manjiro retreats back to his homeland's styles and traditions as a developing samurai while Kayama becomes progressively (sic) westernized.

The play's Reciter or narrator (Henry Lee) ties the various narrative and musical threads of the Sondheim show together with humour and the dramatic irony of knowing ahead-of-time how all the events will unfold.
Photo credit Allyson Fournier Photography
Through a dozen songs, the 120-minute play in two acts employs a "Reciter" who is a kind of narrator borrowed from both the Kabuki and Noh theatre traditions. He ties together the at-times seemingly random threads of the plot that range from the wistful reminiscence of old Japan in "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea" to a geisha madam prepping her farmer-kid recruits to seduce the invading merchant sailors to part with their earnings in "Welcome to Kanawaga". 

What the show brings to the stage : East meets west meets middle earth. So it seems with the evocative "Someone in a Tree" that recalls Adm. Perry's original meeting with the shogun where the American naval officers were deceived by their clever hosts so they would not set foot on Japanese soil contrary to the emperor's sacred edict of 1600. Sondheim has named this his favourite composition from among the countess hundreds he's written over the decades.  By show's end the once-belligerent Kayama sings of his thrill to wear a "Bowler Hat" that emblemizes the new costumes and bling the foreigners have brought with them that he now gladly sports.

When one fully absorbs the fact the script shows a Japan only 120 years after modern foreigners were first allowed on its shores, the effect is made the more jarring and exceptional. That no mention is made whatever of Pearl Harbor or Hiroshima was purposeful by Weidman / Sondheim. The Japanese phoenix had by the time of the show's writing fully taken flight. The time was now of Toyota Camry's and Sony Walkmans and Nikon cameras. Reference to the firepower of mid-century wartime conflict would not suit.

Production values that hi-lite the action :The quote above by Sir Trevor Nunn about says it all. An intimate space. A dozen energized actors. White face. Traditional Japanese dress. Simple runs of risers in thrust seating design up to a diminutive main stage. Follow-spots that track the actors on the runway. All of these elements were in eager play in this production. 

But two features particularly stand out : the excellence of Kerry O'Donovan's keyboard and other synthesized backup brought a listenability to a musical that might well have put off many viewers in its absence. As well, director Ryan Mooney's offset of the actors' bowing obediently in traditional mode -vs- the choreography of the modern scenes and the fight sequences add much needed zing and imagination to the presentational staging that done on Broadway by Hal Prince originally back in '76 was the more traditional proscenium arch modality.

As the fisherman Manjiro who becomes a devout samurai, Alina Wong is a dynamic force who doubles as a hilarious French general promising Japan endless baguettes and champagne.
Photo credit : Allyson Fournier Photography
Acting pin-spots : In traditional Kabuki, all roles are played by men. FCP's cast of 12 features six women. The trade-off is a cross between Shakespeare and English panto : men play the women's roles and women play some of the men's. It all works delightfully in the "non-binary" culture we now inhabit.

The leads deserve a particular shout-out : as the prodigal son fisherman cum samurai Manjiro, Alina Wong was magnetic in her punchy impudent manner. Opposite playing Kayama, Jason Lam brought a studied integrity to his role (but perhaps was best riffing Gilbert-&-Sullivan as the British Admiral in the chummy "Please, Hello" number to kick off Act 2).

Carlo Furtin as the geisha madam leading his proteges through the deliciously ironic "Welcome to Kanagawa" was great fun, as was Carlo Yu playing the hapless and addlepated Lord Abe who in a fog of bewilderment signed away Japan's cultural and commercial fate.

Who gonna like : For Sondheim aficionados who want a measure of the man's lyrical breadth, Pacific Overtures is a show to add to their list of dramatic "should see" shows. The 5-step atonal song sequences may not strike happily on all ears. E.g. for myself I tend to prefer Ralph Vaughan Williams doing his melodic take on Thomas Tallis over the 12-tone pieces of Bela Bartok. Taste is neither right or wrong, it just is.
The cast -- all FCP first-timers -- had but a month to absorb lines, accustom themselves to the unusual Sondheim tunes and cadences as well as execute the clever blocking and stage business set out for them by director Mooney. The cast's eagerness and fidelity to match these challenges brings much to admire and applaud.

Particulars :  Music & Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.  Book by John Weidman.  Produced by Fighting Chance Productions.  At the PAL theatre, 581 Cardero Street.  On through March 3rd.  Tickets & schedule information @  Run-time : Two acts, 75 minutes + 45 minutes with intermission.

Production team :  Ryan Mooney, Director.  Kerry O'Donovan, Music Director.  Kelsey Cunningham, Costume Designer.  And Lloyd, Lighting Designer.  Sandy Margaret, Set Designer.  Cailin Taverner, Stage Manager.

Performers :  Thomas Chan.  Brandon Chow.  Tracy Dam.  Carlo Fortin.  Chelsea Huang.  Jason Lam.  Henry Lee.  Ashley Park.  Wynn Siu.  Veronica Ung.  Alina Wong.  Carlo Yu.



  1. Unhappily, the version of Manjiro depicted in the show is highly fictionalized. He never retreated from the pro-western values reflecting the time he spent in the US. His true story is quite a remarkable one. See:

    1. Thank you for your clarification. Indeed I had read that elsewhere. In addition that the Japanese were quite put off by Sondheim's depiction of one of their national heroes. In the fake news epoch the line between "real" and "imagined" becomes more clouded by cataract than ever before.