Cincinnati's distinguished Playhouse In the Park doesn't produce many musicals, but when they do, it is often the work of Stephen Sondheim that is presented. After successful mountings of Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, and Gypsy in recent years, the regional theater chose Pacific Overtures for their only musical of the 2002-2003 season. The result is a visually satisfying and lavishly designed production that succeeds despite some minor (and correctable) problems.
Pacific Overtures was originally staged on Broadway in 1976. The musical provides a historical perspective on the actions leading to the end of 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 likewise examined through various subplots (true and fictionalized).
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 that could otherwise be dry (and far from what many might consider ripe for musicalization). Authentic Japanese arts such as Kabuki and haiku, as well as masks and puppetry, are put to beneficial use.
Sondheim's score is likewise well-suited to the material. His music is stylistically Japanese while structured along the lines of traditional musical theater. The melodies range from complex to simple (and almost hypnotic at times) 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 "Pretty Lady."
As with most productions of Pacific Overtures, cast members play multiple roles. Like several others in the ensemble, James Saito isn't a great singer, but he is a commanding presence as the Reciter. His relaxed humor and strong narration are assets to the production. As Lord Abe, Tony Marinyo brings quiet dignity and (later) appropriate confusion to the role. Portraying the main figures in the story, Steven Eng (Kayama) and Jason Ma (Manjiro) provide wonderful singing vocals and characterizations. Of the remaining cast members, Alan Muraoka (best known for his role on Sesame Street) is the standout with his multiple comedic roles.
Unfortunately, a few problems were evident on opening night that can and should be quickly addressed. The cast as a whole did not yet seem settled into the pacing and timing of the piece. Lyrics and lines were dropped in a few places, and several singers were a bit behind the orchestra. In addition, the impact of the performances and overall production was diminished greatly by an unsatisfactory sound design that left much of the audio muted and muddled. With additional time, there is little doubt that the performers will be more comfortable with the material, and the sound amplification will hopefully be improved quickly.
Pacific Overtures is a co-production between Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park and Atlanta's Alliance Theatre Company. The production is directed by Kent Gash, the Associate Artistic Director for Alliance. Mr. Gash uses his actors and performance space efficiently and supplies clarity to a number of scenes with his impressive staging. He demonstrates an obvious respect and understanding for both the material and the story being told. The beautiful choreography also helps to clarify many lines. As provided by Broadway performers Darren Lee and Francis Jue, the stunning dances and flowing movement of the performers are highlighted in "Welcome to Kanagara", "Please Hello", and the high energy "Next."
The physical design for Pacific Overtures is large in scope and helps to convey the historical and cultural details of the piece. There are over three hundred elaborate and attractive costumes painstakingly created by Paul Tazewell. Neil Patel's atmospheric set includes a number of panels and screens that slide and turn to evoke setting and tone for scenes, and the beautiful Japanese mural that covers the back of the stage is accented by a blood red frame. A hanamichi bridge used in Kabuki theater is incorporated for entrances and exits by the performers. Michael Philippi, who provides intricate lighting, completes the visual design team, all of whom deserve much praise for their remarkable and cohesive accomplishments.
Pacific Overtures is an intelligent, professional, and educational musical with a score by America's foremost theater songwriter. Thanks to great direction, choreography, and physical design elements, the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park production offers much to admire. With time and some adjustments, the audio problems that plagued the piece on opening night should be minimized and the overall effectiveness of the show will be fully realized. The musical continues in Cincinnati until April 4, 2003, before transferring to the Alliance Theater Company of Atlanta.
For more information, visit www.cincyplay.com.