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Pacific Overtures review – small Sondheim is beautifully done

<span>Photograph: Manuel Harlan</span>
Photograph: Manuel Harlan

When Stephen Sondheim’s 1976 musical premiered on Broadway, it was staged in grand kabuki style. By contrast, this Umeda Arts Theater co-production, already mounted in Tokyo and Osaka, goes small – and beautiful.

Directed by Matthew White, the story of four 19th-century American warships that appear on the coast of Japan and open it up to westernising forces is performed straight through in under two hours. A snug traverse stage never looks tight, but is rammed with fast, funny theatricality.

The music is a pleasure, too, and creates an almost physical immersion in such an intimate space, with hammering drums in moments of high drama.

The staging brings great visual wit and wonder, from Ashley Nottingham’s attractive choreography to Paul Farnsworth’s set design. The warships first appear as paper boats held by actors, and later as a giant triangular sheet, alongside curved steel structures that look like expressionist nods to Hokusai’s The Great Wave.

Ayako Maeda’s costumes are variously witty and exquisite, while Paul Pyant’s lighting brings its own delicacy, projecting raindrops and rippling ocean water on to the floorboards.

Some scenes sprint, with instant set changes but without feverishness, while there is a meditative pacing to the songs. Welcome to Kanagawa, in which a madam prepares her geishas for the arriving Americans, averts the reductive cliches of Miss Saigon with its tongue-in-cheek humour. Someone in a Tree, capturing an elderly man’s memory of his younger self, is a delight.

The reciter (Jon Chew, shrewd and agile) looks like he has stepped out of a boyband. The friendship between samurai Kayama (Takuro Ohno), who is drawn towards western culture, and Manjiro (Joaquin Pedro Valdes), who takes the opposite trajectory, has a restrained affection even when the men fall out. The shogun is played with a gender twist by Saori Oda, who brings comic relish but never becomes outrightly clownish.

The book by John Weidman, with additional material from Hugh Wheeler, leaves itself vulnerable to charges of cultural appropriation. As Weidman points out in the programme, this piece of Japanese history was dramatised by “two upper-middle-class white men living in New York”. Yet it does not sound thudding or simplistic, but sparkles with knowing humour around cultural stereotypes. The scene in which Please Hello is sung as French, Dutch, Russian and American admiralty woo Japan into trade treaties is a blast – the musical is worth watching for its finely choreographed comedy alone.

Arguably a show about the US’s aggressive cultural imperialism, this production does more than show us this alone, and there are charges of “barbarianism” from both sides. Although set at a specific historical moment, marking the birth of Japan’s economic ambition in global trading, the book touches more universally on perceptions of the outsider and assimilation, as well as notions of cultural purity and violent nationalism (“Japan will be Japan again,” says one character, defending Japanese tradition from western influence).

It is thrilling to see this lesser-performed Sondheim piece staged with such zest and imagination. It’s one of the most original and ebullient musicals in town.