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San Francisco by Richard Connema

A Top Rated Production of Sondheim's Pacific Overtures


The TheatreWorks program's front page says Pacific Overtures; A Musical Masterpiece and I am inclined to go along with that title. To me, it is an integrated and exquisite score. The mostly Asian cast is superb and there is not one weak spot in the whole production. The staging of the musical is spectacular. Direction by Robert Kelly is superb, choreography by Francis Jue is excellent and the lighting by Steven Mannshardt and costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt are breathtaking. The production successfully merges Asian and Broadway stage techniques. The extended stage compliments the production and it was done in wonderful Kabuki style. The orchestra is top flight also. It is a production worthy of a Broadway presentation.

The plot depicts Japan in 1853, just as the Westerners came to the "floating island," as described by the "Reciter," brilliantly played by Mikio Hiarata. Manjiro, a Japanese fisherman presumed lost at sea, returns to Japan with a warning that the Americans are coming. Manjiro is played by Michael K. Lee who is superb in the role. He has a powerful voice and his tonal quality is astounding. Also, he gives a charismatic performance, going from a lowly fisherman who had spent 6 years in Massachusetts to becoming a "Yankee" and then transforming back to his roots as a samurai at the end of the production.

After two hundred and fifty years of undisturbed peace, the serene and changeless cycle of days is finally broken when an American fleet arrives demanding to dock and negotiate trade agreements. Kayama, played by Scott Watanabe, is sent to deal with the foreigners. He was also superb in his role.

With a little help from Manjiro, Kayama soon learns that diplomatic first contact is not as simple as it looks and the shores are soon overrun by American, British, Russian, French and Dutch expeditions, all demanding their own ports. The rowdy foreigners, bad trades, and political turmoil bring the islanders to a crossroads. They either force the barbarians out or bend to their will. The Emperor, however, envisions a day when western powers are forced to acknowledge Japan as their undisputed equal. The musical ends with present day Japan in the song "Next," with the names of the leading Japanese companies coming down from the top of the stage and the cast dressed in modern clothes.

There are many highlights in this musical. The "Chrysanthemum Tea" scene is a work of art. The Shogun's mother is played by Jacqueline McSwanson who is smashing singing and playing the role. The Lion Dance of Commodore Perry by Erwin G. Urbi is in a class by itself. 'Fantastic' is the word that comes to mind. Francis Jue who did the choreography must be commended for his work which ends the first act.

"Someone in a Tree" is as fine as anything Sondheim has ever written and is sung by Hisateo Masuyama, Donny Honda and Don Masuda who are crackerjack in the the scene. "A Bowler Hat," sung by Scott Watanabe, is peppily performed. The lilting ballad "Pretty Lady" is beautifully sung by the trio David Sanchez, Erwin G. Urbi and Romar De Claro. One of the great comic moments of this masterpiece is the "Please Hello" number with each of the Admirals of the various Western nations trying to outdo each other. Hiasta Masuyama is particularly campy as the French Admiral and David Lamm as the Russian Admiral in his deep basso voice is extraordinary. Donny Honda as the Dutch Admiral in his "wooden shoes" and "chocolate" is a hoot. Lawrence Michael Arias as the British Admiral has the Gilbert and Sullivan patter down flat and Erwin G. Urbi as the American Admiral rounds out this hilarious group. The other comic number, "Welcome to Kanagawa," is wittily performed by Ev Shiro and a lovely chorus of Japanese girls.

This marks the sixth production of the musical that I have seen; the original production at the Winter Garden in 1976 with Mako as the "reciter", the York Theatre production, the East-West production in Los Angeles, the ENO production in London and the TheatreWorks production several years ago. This production ranks with the best of the five that I have seen. I recommend it highly.

Pacific Overtures runs through September 23rd at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts. Tickets are $22 - $40, call 650-903-6000 or visit the TheatreWorks web site at www.TheatreWorks.Org The next in the series will be Rebecca Gilman's Spinning into Butter which opens on October 10 at the Mountain View Center.


Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area


- Richard Connema



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