Wednesday 9 July 2014

Pacific Overtures - Review

Union Theatre, London


Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by John Weidman
Additional material by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Michael Strassen

The company of Pacific Overtures

One of his least performed musicals, Pacific Overtures sees Sondheim cast his gimlet eye on the diplomatic advances (the pacific overtures of the title) that America and subsequently other nations too, made towards Imperial Japan around the middle of the nineteenth century. The finely crafted tale depicts the guardians of a rarefied Japan grappling with the threat that the "barbarians" from across the Pacific posed to their culture and sovereignty. There is balance in the writing though and whilst Japan surely had a refined elegance to its way of life, Sondheim strips the scales away, portraying a harsh and murderous Japanese dictatorship, demeaning of women and with an ethos of intolerance and jingoistic nationalism fascist enough to make UKIP resemble the Rainbow Alliance.

There are few lyrical minds wittier than Sondheim and his act one lyrics, with frequent Haiku sub-cadences present an aural suggestion of Japan that has an uncanny authenticity. Michael Strassen's bold interpretation of the complex work again hints at his mastery of the musical, particularly with his work so often amongst the restrained budgets of off-West End theatre

Simple drapes suggest the ascetic world of this interpretation and with the undercroft auditorium's air heavy with the scent of joss sticks, the thematic nod to Kabuki is sealed. That the traditional Japanese art form demands a men-only cast will only have appealed to Sasha Regan's Union Theatre, a venue ever keen to present a scantily clad all-male flesh feast. But Strassen's vision holds firm and the artistic integrity of his staging is at times breathtaking, with some close harmony work that is sublime.

As with all of Sondheim’s shows, his musical numbers are akin to the Japanese military: They don't easily take prisoners. It's a simple choice, one either masters the Master's melodies or dies trying. Ken Christiansen may make for an imposing white-slapped Reciter, Shogun and ultimately Emperor, but he is found out on his singing solos. There is however excellence in abundance elsewhere. Ian Mowat is a delight in roles of varying gender and seniority, never bettered than as the geisha's madam in Welcome To Kanagawa, where his character seems to effortlessly conjoin The Engineer from Miss Saigon with Cabaret's Emcee. Amongst the boys Joel Harper-Jackson skilfully amuses as the Shogun's wife, Matt Jolly's Fisherman in Four Black Dragons is a treat, whilst Lee Van Geleen who recently impressed in HMS Pinafore, combines a pinpoint comic turn with a beautifully weighted baritone presence as the Russian Admiral.

Strassen's take on the complex piece is to be savoured, with Richard Bates' four piece band a delight, capturing much of the tale purely through the show's carefully crafted compositions. The company work in voice, movement and dance is top-notch, with Marios Nicolaides' ballet work an absolute treat. Oh and the three-part harmony of Pretty Lady has to be amongst the best in town. Not an easy show to watch, but unmissable both for Sondheim devotees and canny lovers of musical theatre.

Runs until 2nd August 2014

1 comment:

  1. It's astonishing how the white elephant in the room is not being addressed here. This whole show about the commercial subjugation of Japan by Western nations and where two thirds of the characters are Japanese is portrayed by a cast of white actors - just half an East Asian amongst them. Where this would be unthinkable in a production of, say, The Scottsboro Boys or even the black characters in The Book of Mormon, the practice of "yellow face" is alive and well in London theatre. Despite protests by the East Asian acting community neither the producer nor the director have seen fit to address this issue. Whilst it is uncomfortable for liberal artists to imagine they may somehow be prejudiced or they have done something wrong against a minority, the reality is plain to see and yet again has been brushed under the carpet, abetted by the media and press who laud their achievement, blocking out what has hitherto been a silent minority. Enough is enough.