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[whitespace] 'Pacific Overtures'
Making Overtures: The Reciter (Mikio Hirata) and the cast sing the praises of being an island empire.

'Pacific' Past

Despite this sumptuous production, 'Pacific Overtures' hasn't aged well over the last 25 years

By Heather Zimmerman

ALTHOUGH ONE of Stephen Sondheim's richer and more varied works, Pacific Overtures teeters on a fine line between satire and conveying the imperialistic attitudes the show, in its later scenes, seems meant to spoof. For the play's 25th anniversary, TheatreWorks offers a beautifully staged production in which elaborate costumes and striking sets and lighting all combine for a gorgeous visual feast. Director Robert Kelley ably helms a large cast, who turn in some exceptionally strong performances that incorporate a wide-ranging collection of theatrical traditions, in particular Kabuki. As a musical theater experience, this production is impressive.

However, as a cultural and historical examination, the play hasn't aged well after a quarter of a century. Set in Japan in 1853, Pacific Overtures tells how the country began to reverse its strict isolationist policy after some strong-arming from the United States and Europe, beginning with Commodore Matthew Perry, who sailed four American warships to Japan to make a "diplomatic" visit.

When confronted with foreigners, whose presence on Japanese soil a two-centuries-old law forbids, the Japanese are distrustful. But the words "foreign devils" and "barbarians" get thrown around much too deliberately, and the play, surprisingly, doesn't seem understanding of the Japanese stance. In fact, a substantial portion of the first act verges on condescension, painting a too-idyllic scene of 19th-century Japan. The show's first musical number, "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea," gives us pantomimes of rice planting and flower arranging. The society's leaders, the shoguns, are indolent and pompous, and the emperor is a mere tot. These early scenes seem self-mocking--suggesting the people invited an invasion of their culture through their own complacency.

There's little meaningful character development until the second act, although what there is is worth waiting for, in particular, watching first friendship and then tension grow between the two central characters: the samurai Kayama (Scott Watanabe) and the fisherman Manjiro (Michael K. Lee), with Kayama embracing Western influences, and Manjiro, although he once lived happily among Americans, trying to uphold Japanese traditions.

The eventual scope of the Western presence in Japan gets an ominous illustration with the falsely cheerful (and cleverly choreographed) "Please Hello," a virtual invasion of a shogun's court by an international array of military leaders. On a more individual level, Kayama and Manjiro demonstrate the growing changes to Japanese culture as the Westerners become more plentiful, especially with the song "A Bowler Hat," which marks Kayama's assimilation to Western ways as, hidden in the shadows, Manjiro carries on Japanese traditions.

However, for a play that tells the story of an ancient, powerful civilization encountering rising imperialistic forces from the West, Pacific Overtures doesn't seem to place much value on what Western influences destroyed or altered in the Japanese culture--though perhaps such an absence says more than any song could.

Pacific Overtures plays the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St, Mountain View, Tuesdays at 7:30pm, Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, through Sept. 23. Tickets are $22-$40. (650.903.6000)

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From the September 6-12, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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