Sunday, April 12, 2009

Pacifist overtures

I went to see a very interesting and very rare production of Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures last night, done here in Chicago by Porchlight, a small musical theater company. It's a musical about the opening of Japan in the mid-nineteenth century, and if one more usher, director, board member, or whoever had told me that I had to read the synopsis first, and that this show is "from the Japanese point of view!" I would have walked out.

The director, in his notes, drew parallels to Iraq, and noted that Japan took the Western intrusion and used it; the show ends with a paean to Japanese global achievements and popularity. Such an earnest and well-meaning production, and even an intermittently well-meaning show, still can't take the horrific stereotyping out entirely. When you have a number about geishas preparing happily for the Western influx, it just isn't going to go over well. Nor is it going to go over too well when a cringing young official gets jeered at and bossed around by Perry's sailors when he tries to turn them back. In general, the officials could have been done with a little more dignity. They might not have been able to keep Japan closed in the face of Perry's cannons, but they didn't have to be played as helpless and ridiculous, either. On the other hand, some of the other characters were played with a real sensitivity and well-roundedness.

So it's up to you, if you can endure those uncomfortable elements. Musically, I actually liked it very much; it's slightly more melodic Sondheim. The production is excellently and minimally staged, allowing for a lot of good dance choreography (and some rather lacking fight choreography). The cast is uneven. David Rhee, the Reciter (the central, self-ironizing role played in the revival by B.D. Wong) was a little too obviously the best trained actor in the show, and rather intense -- maybe because he felt he had to make up for the others. (I'd have taken his mike off, if nothing else, to level the sound.) This was cleared up on the way home when I looked at the bios and found that he is an Equity member who has played on Broadway and at Steppenwolf. The rest are local actors of varying experience, some of whom were excellent, and some of whom were certainly good local talent, but not up to Rhee's level. Beautiful costumes -- what costume designer doesn't love to go nuts with kimonos? and a decent little 5-piece band behind a screen. If you are a big Sondheim or musical fan, by all means run, don't walk. But only if.

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