Sunday, March 9, 2003

'Pacific' ambitious, entertaining spectacle

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

I don't know about you, but I find the times we live in very scary. So it's a special pleasure to find a work of theater that helps me grope toward a better understanding of this complex world of ours.

Pacific Overtures isn't about America's involvement with the Middle East; it's about America's friendly invasion of Japan 150 years ago, when the United States made "pacific overtures" to an island floating in blissful isolation in the middle of the sea.

Thanks to the dazzlingly ambitious production at Playhouse in the Park, a door swings open to a culture alien to my own and even as I am swept up in Broadway trappings and one of Stephen Sondheim's finest scores, I'm reminded that it is not just wise but necessary to learn to understand how we have come to be where we are.

I couldn't ask for a more entertaining life lesson.

The spine of Overtures follows the parallel stories of Kamaya (Steven Eng), a bureaucrat recruited to deal with the barbarian Americans (when his superiors will not so lower themselves), and fisherman Manjiro (Jason Ma), who has been saved at sea by American sailors and welcomes the societal changes and technological advances he knows America can bring.

Through the course of the action their lives intersect, but by their last meeting they have moved in opposite directions politically. Kamaya embraces Western ways, while Manjiro is willing to resort to violence to bring a return to tradition.

Overtures is an ensemble piece, loosely following these two disparate men. But it works on a vast dramatic canvas that touches on Japanese cultural traditions and art, and it offers any number of breath-taking individual moments:

Allan Mangaser is perfection as a Japanese woman driven to ritual suicide; Mikio Hirata is wonderful as an old man leading one of the evening's most ravishing musical interludes "Someone in a Tree," and is equally impressive as the Shogun's battle-axe mother.

Our guide is the "reciter" (James Saito), who provides narration, proverbs, even haiku.

Kent Gash's production for the Playhouse takes advantage of some inspired ideas from recent revivals that deepen the experience: the impressive cast is Asian-American; a new orchestration heavily employs Japanese instruments.

The sumptuous design work by Neil Patel (set), Michael Philippi (lighting) and Paul Tazewell (costumes) makes for an eye-candy evening.

On opening night Thursday, Overtures was under-rehearsed. (The first preview was canceled.)

I'll assume (based on long experience with Playhouse technical expertise) that serious problems in balancing singers and orchestra have been resolved. But on Thursday, Saito was out of voice (was this the cause?) and Sondheim's comic "Please Hello," a giddy one-upsmanship of Gilbert & Sullivan patter that finds British, French, Dutch and Russian emissaries following America into Japan, was sadly ineffective.

The saving grace was Ma, transforming from Manjiro into the wooden-shoe clad Dutch admiral.

Gash's direction is elegant, although I would wish for more of a kinship between Kayama and Manjiro.

To my eyes, Overtures' present-day finale is rendered meaningless as it plays out against a backdrop of Broadway-style light bulbs that looks more like a Times Square theater lobby than anything else.

Finding a better way to flash-forward visually to theatrically define Japan today would have helped send this powerhouse musical through the roof.

By the way, according to the diary of Commodore Matthew Perry, if the Nippon nation did not welcome these "reasonable pacific overtures," he was prepared to impose them "by any means necessary."

Pacific Overtures, through April 4, Playhouse in the Park Marx Theatre, Eden Park. 421-3888.

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