Los Angeles Theater Review: PACIFIC OVERTURES (Chromolume Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on December 6, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles


Remarkably, one of the most difficult things about Pacific Overtures is that Harold Prince directed the original production utilizing the ancient Japanese theater-form, Kabuki, which isn’t necessary to elucidate John Weidman’s book (can you imagine if every production of Merrily We Roll Along used a teenage cast, as Prince’s original production did?). The musical, with a score by Stephen Sondheim, is based on Weidman’s own play that tells of Commodore Perry’s 1853 visit to Japan, in which Perry — and his warships — convinced the isolated “floating kingdom” to open its borders to U.S. trade.

What developed — and flopped after 193 performances in 1976 — is less a story and more a series of scenes punctuated Kabuki-style with annotation (haikus, instructional stories) by a reciter who occasionally gets caught up in the proceedings. The two main characters are a samurai and a fisherman who get entangled in the westernization. What Chromolume Theatre has done remarkably well is stray from the over-stylization that can doom this show (can you see why it hasn’t been produced in L.A. for 19 years?). Partly this seems economical — this tiny company performs in a tiny space with a huge rent (landlords are quickly displacing art as they displace poorer people), and sliding screens and kimonos and facepaint and warships and an orchestra don’t come cheap.

The original production had a 30-member ensemble, with a few actors playing multiple roles; director James Esposito slices that down to 10, and presents this less Kabuki and more Godspell-style. (Daniel Yokomizo [piano], Alex Moore [bass] and Tony Jones [percussion] handled the challenging accompaniment quite well.) The mostly Asian cast — seven of whom play multiple roles — may not always be polished, but they hit their marks, and in some cases far exceed what one would expect from a semi-professional outing. Better yet, they all have addictively distinctive personalities, and their voices follow suit, from operatic to mellifluous to, well, innocent. And Chromolume wisely eschewed the unnecessary body mics they normally use, enhancing the intimacy of the magnificent score.

Ah, yes, Stephen Sondheim’s score. If there’s anything that is always great in flawed Sondheim/Prince shows, it’s the music. The master lyricist/composer rose to the strikingly original but thin book’s challenge to communicate drama through song, and the results are stunning. From achingly beautiful when some English sailors mistake a geisha for a prostitute (“Pretty Lady”) to a Gilbert & Sullivan/John Sousa pastiche when foreign countries embark on trade agreements (“Please Hello!”) to a Rashomon recall of the treaty signing (Sondheim’s favorite song, “Someone in a Tree”), to a very funny Shogun poisoning (“Chrysanthemum Tea”), he offers his customary devilishily witty and delightful lyrics. The brilliance of Sondheim is that he encapsulates the Westernization of Japan in four minutes with “I Wear A Bowler Hat,” in which Kayama, the samurai turned diplomat, shows himself ready to put feudal Japan behind him and step into the modern world.

This — as with most all Sondheim — is not an easy score to get right, but this ensemble did. I really was most impressed and, more important, I was truly entertained. It’s a ridiculously short run; don’t miss this rare opportunity to see a rarely produced Sondheim gem.


photos by Ederson Vasquez

Pacific Overtures
Chromolume Theatre
The Attic, 5429 W. Washington Boulevard (between the 10 Fwy. and Hauser)
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on December 17, 2017 EXTENDED to December 23, 2017
Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8
for tickets, call 323.205.1617 or visit Chromolume

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