Menier Chocolate Factory, London
Until February 24
Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim
Director: Matthew White
Co-production between Menier Chocolate Factory and Umeda Arts Theater, Japan.
Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes
Cast: Jon Chew, Takuro Ohno, Saori Oda, Joaquin Pedro Valdes, Kanako Nakano, Rachel Jayne Picar, Eu Jin Hwang, Lee V G, Ethan Le Phong, Sario Solomon, Joy Tan, Ludran Ding, Masahi Fujimoto, Patrick Munday, Iverson Yabut, Abel Law, Jojo Meredith
Pacific Overtures is Stephen Sondheim’s ironic take on events that began when in 1853 four American warships arrived in Tokyo Bay and set about forcing a nation that had sealed itself off from the world into a trading relationship.
The revolution that ensued was as much aesthetic as economic.
From Madame Butterfly to manga, the exchange has had as deep an impact on culture as any trading arrangement.
Sondheim artfully played with the vantage point of both parties. Under Matthew White’s deft and perfectly paced direction, his musical glosses over the shattering individual tragedies of the East-West clash for an ambivalent acceptance of a cultural blend. It stops short of full-hearted feel-good, but dramatically, is more deeply satisfying and in tune with our times.
This production also derives authenticity from being the joint work of London’s Menier Chocolate Factory and Japan’s Umeda Arts Theater. It follows performances in Tokyo and Osaka in Japanese before being exported back to London in English.
Paul Farnsworth’s set design and Ayako Maeda’s costumes combine imperial style with flashes of brasher modernity.
Jon Chew, as the reciter, wears a jacket that is modern but made of traditional fabric over jeans and a T-shirt, placing him at a sardonic distance from events that raise low-ranking Samurai Kayama (Takuro Ohno) to high office and washed ashore fisherman Manjiro (Joaquin Pedro Valdes) into the Samurai class.
In charge of all the elevation is Saori Oda as the small but mighty Shogun, who excels at delegating unpleasant tasks.
The apposite music is tempered by Japanese restraint. “Poems,” a duet for Kayama and Manjiro, in which they cautiously bond, forms the quiet, emotional centre of the musical.
“Pretty Lady,” performed by Luoran Ding as the delicate lady, and three lusting sailors, shockingly juxtaposes grace and the extreme violence whose threat throughout is all that keeps social order intact – until it doesn’t.
Barbara Lewis © 2023.