Also see Scott's recent review of The Music Man
As the final entry in their 2002-2003 Musical Theatre Workshops Series, The Human Race Theatre Company of Dayton, Ohio presents a staged reading of the Stephen Sondheim musical Pacific Overtures. In addition to their fine mainstage season, this theater company has also gained high praise for mounting top-notch readings of both new shows and rarely performed existing musicals. With Pacific Overtures, Human Race has met the challenges associated with this show and the product is an engaging and thrilling theater experience.
The show, originally seen on Broadway in 1976, provides a historical perspective on the attempt to end Japan's policy of isolation starting with the 1853 visit by Commodore Matthew Perry. The effect on the country's culture by the initial visit and subsequent westernization is examined through various subplots (true and fictionalized) as well.
The book for Pacific Overtures by John Weidman is highly cerebral, with each character presented in what may best be described as an "emotionally restrained" manner. The storytelling is first-rate, however, and the wit, humor, and careful attention to cultural accuracy aid in creating a balance to the subject matter which could otherwise be dry (and far from what many might consider ripe for musicalization).
Sondheim's score is likewise well suited to the material. His music is stylistically Japanese while structurally along the lines of traditional musical theater. The melodies range from complex to simple while consistently remaining accessible to the ear. The wonderful imagery in Sondheim's efficient lyrics shows why he is considered the premiere wordsmith of American musical theater. Song highlights include "Poems," "Someone In A Tree," and "Please Hello." Strong musical direction is provided by Neal Gittleman, who leads a three piece band with a necessary emphasis on percussion.
For any production of Pacific Overtures, cast members play multiple roles. Of great interest (and much press) for this production is the casting of George Takei as the Reciter. Known primarily for his role of Mr. Sulu from the original Star Trek television series, this is his first foray into musical theater. Though he has some difficulty with the singing demands in the opening number "Advantages," Takei provides strong narration and solid delivery of lines throughout the show. The remaining cast members are superb singers and turn in excellent vocal and acting performances. Alan Muraoka (best known for his role on Sesame Street) and Rich Ceraulo are especially praiseworthy for their work. Human Race regulars Jay Pierce, Kay Bosse, and Scott Stoney, along with Jamie Cordes, Juan-Carlos Diaz, Ryan Heinrich, Michael Pincelli, and Jose Solivan round out the fine cast.
As this is a staged reading, the actors are seated and have scripts available. However, Director Kevin Moore has become an expert at leading these workshops, and the result is stunning. The performers rarely seem constrained by their scripts (or their chairs). There is much interaction between the performers, as well as appropriate choreography, and use of props (such as masks, dolls, and cultural artifacts). The humor within the piece is emphasized (to the benefit of the show) and various theatrical devices are employed to tell this unique story. Despite the absence of a set and costumes, the essence of the show is fully communicated within the boundaries of the staged reading, much to the credit of Moore.
Pacific Overtures is a difficult show to stage and is one of Stephen Sondheim's least performed shows. However, The Human Race Theatre Company's reading demonstrates the musical's viability with a very satisfying production. This workshop was presented from June 22 - 24, 2002. Announced for next season's Musical Theatre Workshops Series are Moby Dick: The Musical (the camp version that played London a few years ago), Green Gables (a musical adaptation of Anne of Green Gables), and Wild Blue (a cabaret-style show about mankind's fascination with flight).