Sunday, March 2, 2003

East meets West in Playhouse's 'Pacific Overtures'

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

America has rediscovered Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures, perhaps because it was ahead of its time when it debuted in 1976. It's very much of the time we're living in now.

"Things that were relatively benign in 1976 now have extra weight," comments Kent Gash, associate artistic director of Alliance Theatre Company in Atlanta and the musical's director.

What: Pacific Overtures
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday; 8 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 5 and 9 p.m. Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday through April 4.
Where: Playhouse in the Park, Eden Park
Tickets: $32 Tuesday and Wednesday previews; starting Thursday, $35-47. 421-3888. Unreserved tickets are half-price day of show purchased at the Playhouse between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., starting noon on Sunday.
Meet the Artist performances: 2 p.m. March 9, 8 p.m. March 12, 2 p.m. March 23, 8 p.m. March 27.
Playhouse Perspectives: Dana Kadison gives a free lecture between performances at 6 p.m. March 16.
Overtures, opening this week at Playhouse in the Park, embarks from Commodore Matthew Perry's 1853 expedition to Japan, a land that had been floating in blissful isolation for centuries. Change comes inevitably.

As Overtures observes a century of American-Japanese relations told in a style of Broadway-meets-Kabuki, one can't help think, notes Gash, about "America going into other cultures and making changes, invited or not.

"It's hard not to, with an impending war. Maybe part of the lesson of the piece is that there are human cycles which we are bound to repeat. I don't know."

When the show debuted, Sondheim explained that the hypothesis the creators worked from was that a Japanese playwright came to New York, saw some Broadway shows and went home and wrote one.

Overtures lavishly incorporates traditional forms of Japanese art, from Kabuki to haiku to Japanese instrumentation.

What happens when Western and Eastern cultures collide on the musical stage?

Overtures follows two men, samurai Kayama who initially rejects America's innovations, and Manjiro, who moves in the opposite direction, at first embracing change and then rediscovering tradition.

When Perry and his warships arrive in the harbor, a fisherman believes he is seeing four black dragons swimming toward shore. Later Perry performs a traditional lion dance wearing a Kabuki-styled costume in red, white and blue.

The Playhouse production's cultural adviser, Yuriko Doi, explains some of the secrets of Japan's favorite theatrical form. In Kabuki, she says, "it's the body that speaks, the body that demonstrates, not words" - hence its large gestures and stylized use of vocal tones.

Note the sliding, gliding steps. The origin is spirituality, says Doi, an attempt, as Kabuki developed, for actors, a lower order, to "mimic the walk of a priest."

Overtures has had elements of Kabuki and Noh since it debuted. Gash had added Butoh, a more modern form of Japanese theater, and borrowed instrumentation from National Theatre of Japan's acclaimed production (which reached the United States in 2002).

The new score makes use of a Japanese stringed instrument (shamisen) and the Noh flute (shakuhachi). "It's a spare, powerful use of melody," says Gash.

He likes that the Asian cast members are all "slashes." Japanese-American, Chinese-American, Korean-American. That's part of the hybrid, they're all born in this country. And that's part of the story, too."

He pauses. As an African-American, "it's part of our story, too."

Overtures, he says, does that rare thing - "it takes epically proportioned history, society and politics and paints it on a theatrical canvas; it illuminates how seismic events impact day-to-day life.

"The music is glorious, the visual elements are amazing, and it's got ideas, too.

"You can't beat that with a stick."


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