BACK STAGE WEST
March 26, 1998
at the David Henry Hwang Theatre
Reviewed by Rob Kendt
East West Players' current revival of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Pacific Overtures is a triumph on so many levels that it feels churlish to point out its shortcomings. Yes, in its move to a new mid-sized theatre in Downtown Los Angeles, this scrappy Asian/Pacific American theatre company bit off a lot more than an Equity rehearsal schedule could chew--a wide load of technical and political hurdles that had more to do with putting up a new theatre facility than putting up a show. And the resulting production not only evinces the expected signs of under-rehearsed performances, it also has moments in which the staging ideas, not just their execution, seem under-developed.
But giving a frame and purpose to this inspired imperfection is a project of such passion, grace, and intelligence that it often takes the breath away--not only Sondheim's bold, lapidarian score or Weidman's witty, serious, absorbing book but director Tim Dang's gorgeously imagined and movingly played production. Employing floating and sliding Japanese screens on Lisa Hashimoto's beautiful modular set, lit evocatively by G. Shizuko Herrera, the show moves like a dream--a haunting, outsized dream outfitted with the stunningly signifying costumes of Naomi Yoshida Rodriguez and the letter-perfect hair and make-up of Newton Kazuo Koshi, and choreographed mostly winningly by Betsy Chang and Kabuki consultant David Furumoto.
In telling the unlikely story of feudal Japan's reluctant opening to the West, Weidman and Sondheim's 1976 show adapts a roughly recognizable revue format to Asian theatre practices--or vice versa--and comes up with as many pristinely lyrical moments as it does fiercely pointed passages. Kayama (Orville Mendoza) is a low-level samurai thrust by the ruling Shogun into dealings with the West--of which his first is meant to be a deal-breaker, since the Japanese from the 17th through the 19th century were militantly xenophobic, strictly forbidding any foreigner to even touch their soil. To help Kayama negotiate with the Americans, whose Admiral Perry has come with four warships to open East-West trade relations or else, the Shogun releases a prisoner, Manjiro (Michael K. Lee), who has lived in the U.S.
These two bond in the playful modal duet "Poems," which is staged beguilingly by Dang and performed sunnily by Mendoza and Lee, and which typifies the score's brilliance. As in the serenely moving "There Is No Other Way," the ploddingly prickly "A Bowler Hat," and the soaring "Someone in a Tree," Sondheim somehow makes the knottiest harmonic material and the trickiest intervals sound as natural as folk tunes, and this production's crowning success--adequate rehearsal time or no--is in perfectly realizing this difficult simplicity. Music director Scott Nagatani has done his job exceedingly well, and continues to do so, directing a small but precise arsenal of drums, winds, and keyboards from across raised platforms.
There are too many high points in the cast to mention them all: Mendoza is an embracing, generous presence, with a husky, pliant baritone and a jack-o-lantern face that registers emotion tellingly; David Furumoto is funny and menacing as Lord Abe, and about equally so in a pair of drag roles; Alvin Ing, who was in the original Broadway cast, has a beatific peace about him (which is wrong for a few of the roles he's assigned) and a searing, feminine voice; Tedd Szeto and Hisato Masuyama score big laughs as Russian and French admirals, respectively; Reggie Lee flawlessly executes a pair of expressive dances; Sabrina Lu has a striking turn as a ventriloquist priest, and Paul Wong and Deborah Nishimura each especially bolster the vocal department in a variety of roles. And as the Reciter, who narrates, comments on, and occasionally steps into the action, Keone Young runs through a kaleidoscope of facets and faces, from warm to proud to distrustful to sardonic, and finally to heartbroken (and he plucks a mean shamisen).
The show ends with the brash, buoyant "Next," in which the Japan that has embraced American-style modernity struts its stuff, both tacky and impressive, while Young collapses in tears at the memory of lost traditions. Needless to say, the resonance of this stirring production seems to multiply endlessly as one walks out of the new theatre into bustling Little Tokyo. It's been a long time since I was this proud to live in Los Angeles.
"Pacific Overtures," presented by East West Players at the David Henry Hwang Theatre, Union Center for the Arts, 120 N. Judge John Aiso St., Little Tokyo. Mar. 18-Apr. 5. (800) 233-3123.