Review by Sam Waite
In the nineteen years since the Menier Chocolate Factory opened as a theatrical venue, the space has been no stranger to Sondheim. Beginning a year after the opening with a Sunday revival, many of the late great composer’s work has been produced at the Chocolate Factory – including, now that the lesser-performed Pacific Overtures has opened, the trio of shows he wrote alongside writer John Weidman.
Imaging what a Japanese playwright might imagine (lots of imagination, stay with me!) an American musical about the westernisation of Japan to be, the story concerns the US ships which arrived to push the Japanese to open their borders to the rest of world, and the continued aftermath of allowing other nations access to their land. In particular, we see the stories of two men – a low-levelled samurai (Takuro Ohno) promoted to Prefect of Police despite a lack of authority in dealing with the Americans, and a fisherman (Joaquin Pedro Valdes) whose years living in America have made his manner and wardrobe objectionable to the Shogun, ruling on behalf of a figurehead Emperor.
Mr Sondheim’s work was rarely less than excellent, and there are some real gems in Pacific Overture’s creative, ambitious score, put across beautifully by this new cast. A personal favourite of the man himself, “Someone in a Tree” is an elated number wherein members of the ensemble have a chance to shine and show their comedic chops, as the characters declare that they were hidden nearby and have insider knowledge of a private meeting but take frustratingly (entirely deliberately) long to actually give any of this information. These comic flourishes are on even stronger display in “Please Hello” where the trade envoys of various nations increasingly crowd the Shogun with the requisite accents and overbearing demands.
Valdes, in a role that offers him minimal time singing, cements himself in the audience’s memory with warm, leading-man vocals and an arresting stage presence. Duetting with Ohno on the friendship building “Poems”, he brings depth and realism to a moment of two men growing closer by sharing the differing views brought about by their differing lives. Tasked with moments of broad comedy (impersonating a Councillor to dismiss the American ships) and of rich emotion (the pain in his eyes in one climactic scene feels truly genuine), he succeeds on all counts. Manjiro’s presence is essential to the narrative, but it’s Valdes’ work which ensures that he won’t, as the character easily could, be seen as secondary to Ohno’s Kayama.
Which is not to say that Kayama’s role feels minimised, as Ohno gives a compelling, moving performance – his gradual westernisation the perfect foil to Manjiro’s return to Japanese customs. Whether portraying this growing bond between friends with such different backgrounds, a genuine fear at what may happen to him when he is first called between the Shogun, or the sweet chemistry with wife Tamate (a longing, delicate Kanako Nakano), Ohno is never false in his choices. Two of his numbers, with Nakano on “There Is No Other Way” and with Valdes and Jon Chew on “A Bowler Hat” prove to be among the production’s most affecting moments.
Utilising the newest version of the text, altered by Weidman and Sondheim in the late 2010s, the show excises the interval and comes in around 105 minutes. Matthew White, returning as director after helming the show in both Tokyo and Osaka earlier in 2023, presents the opening and closing scenes as part of a museum tour. This framing device is an interesting spin on the (admittedly confusing) “their history as we imagine that they’dimagine that we’d tell it” concept and allows for a seamless introduction of The Reciter (a spritely, highly energised Jon Chew) and for his presence as a constant narrator and provider of context to be more easily accepted. Weidman’s book, politically minded and often incredibly smart, has the potential for confusing its audience and dragging as things are set up for the main plotlines – a potential issue mostly, but not entirely, swept aside by framing The Reciter’s storytelling as part of an exhibit.
Words upon words could be devoted to the strength of the ensemble at work here, from Saori Oda’s commanding Shogun to Lee V G’s multi-role, multi-national work. Equally impressive, perhaps even more-so given Sondheim’s penchant for difficult compositions, is the live orchestra. Music directed by Paul Bogaev and with striking, evocative orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, they produce a remarkably full and sizeable sound despite the compact venue and presence of only 9 musicians. Of course, the sound design from Gregory Clarke lends a helping hand, as well as producing an array of off-stage (and on-stage) sound effects which enhance and clarify moments without the need of additional props. Paired with some truly dynamic lighting by Paul Pyant, the effects give real impact to moments of violence without the need for visible brutality.
Guided by the presence of You-Ri Yamanaka – the production’s Japanese Movement and Cultural Consultant – Ashley Nottingham’s choreography is fluid, sweeping, and (thank you, Miss Yamanaka!) both culturally relevant and appropriate. The performers arrange the moving pieces (no spoilers here – there are some highlights you should see for yourself) of Paul Farnsworth’s deceptively simple sets, so precise in their timing and movements that they can afford to make it look casual – it almost seems by accident that they’ve let go here, or that they happen to have left the object there. Leo Flint also provides a brief but impactful piece of video design, another detail I won’t elaborate on for fear of ruining a crucial moment.
Pacific Overtures is unlikely to be among the first shows a theatre aficionado may think of when hearing the name Stephen Sondheim – even the first Weidman collaboration would likely be Assassins. But for those who were already familiar, this co-production between the Chocolate Factory and Umeda Arts Theatre demonstrates what they already knew – his score is as glorious as his better-known works, and Overtures is a hidden gem truly worthy of deeper exploration. Mr White’s direction shows how clearly he understands this cutting satire, and after a potentially overwhelming opening his Pacific Overtures is a truly remarkable piece of work.
Pacific Overtures plays at the Menier Chocolate Factory until February 24th 2024
For tickets and information visit https://www.menierchocolatefactory.com/tickets/pacific-overtures/
Photos by Manuel Harlan