THERE are understandable reasons Pacific Overtures, now almost 40 years old, hasn’t had a professional run in Australia until now, with director Alister Smith’s production at Theatre Works in Melbourne. The music by Stephen Sondheim and book by John Weidman are obscure, complex and ambitious—a strange fusion of Broadway musical and kabuki theatre that confused, angered and impressed upon its debut in 1976.

The musical deals with the arrival of the American navy in Japan in 1853, a time when the country was completely closed to outsiders, and the dramatic shifts in Japanese society that followed the country’s forced Westernisation. A huge cast of characters populate the disparate vignettes through which the plot is threaded.

Visually this is a beautiful production. Eugyeene Teh’s set is minimal and stark, with the varied locations suggested by a small number of white paper set pieces and by clever use of four loose cloth screens raised and lowered into the centre of the stage. Rob Sowinski’s textured, precise lighting design and Chole Greaves’ simple, iconic costumes cohere in striking visual moments.

Under the musical direction of Robyn Womersley the production also sounds wonderful, with the tiny instrumental ensemble performing a sparse arrangement that never feels diminished, contributing to the production’s general feeling of precision. Vocal performances from the ensemble are excellent, particularly given the versatility demanded of the performers—each cast member plays multiple roles across the production.

By far the boldest creative move in Smith’s production is the decision to cast the ensemble from a range of ethnic backgrounds. Pacific Overtures is almost always performed by actors from East Asian backgrounds precisely to avoid more obvious cultural problems, and Weidman’s original conceit was of a story told from a Japanese perspective. It’s a strange idea, but one concerned with deconstructing ideas of cultural difference and perception, and the book feels very aware of its potential to be problematic.

Unfortunately this production never quite transcends the jarring notion of a largely white cast playing Japanese archetypes. True, this is in part because the script is at face value somewhat problematic, but for this production specifically somewhat timid direction makes it difficult to know quite what the creative team are trying to say, walking a line between commentary and stereotyping.

This timidity means moments of energy and drama tend to fall a bit flat, like in the song Four Black Dragons, an apocalyptic description of the first sightings of the American warships. The same goes for opening number The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea—Michael Ralph’s choreography is very pretty but lacks energy, and the song struggles to establish any sense of the musical’s very alien world.

Where Smith’s work with the ensemble really shines is the comedic moments, where the performers embrace the book’s larger-than-life concept and run with it. The absolute highlight of the production is the hilarious Please Hello, in which five foreign ambassadors entreat the Shogun with folk pastiche songs. Quieter moments like the beautiful There Is No Other Way also worked, fitting with the production’s generally subdued tone. The ensemble itself is impressively cohesive overall, but standout performances some from Leighton Young, Nick Simpson-Deeks and Noni McCallum, all of whom bring a fantastic energy and boldness to their scenes.

Pacific Overtures is a challenge for both company and audience, but as fascinating now as it was in 1976. Although the Theatre Works production struggles at times to match the boldness of Weidman’s and Sondheim’s concept, this is an enjoyable interpretation of a rarely-performed musical.

Pacific Overtures is playing at Theatre Works in St Kilda until 9 March. For information and bookings visit www.theatreworks.org.au.

 

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