Theatre MU and Park Square collaborate to stage a sleek area premiere of Pacific Overtures
Overtures is an odd duck. Written by Westerners, the musical looks through Japanese eyes at the culture-changing impact of Commodore Matthew Perry's arrival in Edo Bay in 1853. Neither quite Western nor Eastern in form, the musical generates a sense of dislocation that serves the piece well, since cultural dislocation is a major theme. Wry in tone, Overtures both explicates the Japanese dilemma at the arrival of the Americans and gently mocks them, with tongue-in-cheek humor.
Japan, then known as Nippon, sees itself isolated as "an island, floating in the middle of the sea." In an attempt to retain a culture that is "more beautiful than true," it has been closed to foreigners for 250 years and has laws that make it a crime for foreigners to desecrate the nation's ancestral soil. When Perry's ships appear in Edo Bay, with cannons trained on the city, and the Commodore "asks" that Japan sign a treaty, the senior councilors hurriedly elevate a minor samurai to become prefect of police. In his new role, Kayama, played by Arnold R. Felizardo, must prevent the Americans from landing. If he fails, he will have to commit ritual suicide, not the senior councilors.
Manjiro (Sherwin F. Resurreccion), a fisherman who has been to America and who is imprisoned upon his return for consorting with foreigners, is released to help Kayama. The two become fast friends as they devise hair-splitting ways to keep the Americans from treading on Japanese soil.
But, over a period of 120 years, Western ways infiltrate Japanese life and by play's end, these two friends are enemies. Kayama succumbs to Western customs in the charming song "A Bowler Hat," while Manjiro reverts to the traditional samurai way of life.
With effective economy, director Gary Gisselman uses a cast of 12 in strong ensemble acting to portray the multiplicity of roles. Only Kayama and Manjiro emerge as somewhat defined characters. Sondheim wrote the others to be representative Japanese types.
Zachary Drake serves as the Reciter, who tells the story of the coming of Westerners. In the amusing song "Chrysanthemum Tea," he also plays a drowsy Shogun, inclined to see the American ships in the harbor as mere illusion. Momoko Tanno shines as the Shogun's persistent and duplicitous mother in this scene.
On Rick Polenek's spacious set of sliding rice-paper walls, Gisselman brings deft touches of direction. Cast members wheel on lightweight screens and, when they are parted, behold - they reveal kimono-clad women. Perry's four ships in the bay are represented as large black fans that flutter like sails, luffing in the wind. Gisselman uses a stick puppet to represent the ineffective emperor and cleverly uses models to suggest scene elements, like a cage that is held above the crouching Manjiro to suggest that he is imprisoned within it.
Perry appears as a wildly white-maned figure. Played by Adriano Sobretodo Jr., the Commodore dances an aggressive Lion Dance, a traditional dance, in adapted Kabuki style. David Furumoto choreographed Kabuki and Noh stylized elements into this production and Mara Blumenfeld and Elin Anderson designed the costumes for Overtures.
Anita Ruth conducts a four-person orchestra on one side of the stage, and Theatre Mu artistic director Rick Shiomi plays the Taiko drums with flair on the other. Sondheim's score is intriguingly Eastern as the musical opens, but it gradually becomes a blend as Western ways enter Japan. Near the end, when the British ambassador comes to present credentials to a reluctant Lord Abe (Roy Kallemeyn), the score even dips into an amusing Gilbert and Sullivan mode that conjures shades of the The Mikado.
Overtures cracks wide the mold of the American musical. It foregoes glitz and glamour for decorous Eastern manners, blends Eastern theatrical stylization with Western naturalism and Eastern music with Western forms. It is an odd duck. But in this two-theater production, its very oddness is thoroughly engaging.
Pacific Overtures January 10 - February 1, 2004. Thursdays, 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 8:00 p.m. Sundays 2:00 p.m. $19 - $37.50. Park Square Theatre, 20, West Seventh Street, Historic Hamm Building, Downtown St. Paul. Call 651-291-7005.