'Pacific Overtures' review – this handsome production makes a strong case for Sondheim's challenging musical

Read our four-star review of Pacific Overtures, Stephen Sondheim's 1976 work about 19th-century Japan, now in performances at the Menier Chocolate Factory to 24 February.

Julia Rank
Julia Rank

Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends, currently playing at the Gielgud Theatre, makes short work of the preconception that Sondheim didn’t write “tunes” and the notion that his work contains more intellect than heart. However, Cameron Mackintosh’s revue doesn’t feature any numbers from the musicals that Sondheim created with book writer John Weidman – Pacific Overtures (1976), Assassins (1990) and Road Show (2008) – which happen to be his most political offerings.

However, it's hard to envision the songs from Pacific Overtures standing alone as a “turn”. First produced on Broadway between two of Sondheim’s best-loved works, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd, the show explores the US navy (barbarians in their silly hats and epaulettes) barging into Japan in 1853, a country that had been closed off to foreigners for 250 years. While Sondheim always challenged ideas about what musical theatre should be, this is different even by his standards.

Matthew White’s production, which was previously performed in Tokyo in Japanese, is visually ravishing and a superb example of staging an epic story in an intimate space. Initially museum visitors listen to their audio guides and pose for selfies before the traverse stage opens up.

Paul Farnsworth provides an elegant set design with curved bronze accents and wooden panels, complemented by Ayako Maeda’s costumes. Paul Pyant supplies exquisite burnished sunlight, and Ashley Nottingham’s fluid choreography is a nimble vehicle for storytelling.

The blonde-coiffed Jon Chew is the Reciter, who’s something of a game show host. He helms the narrative and uses a remote control to navigate the language barriers.

At the heart of the proceedings are fisherman Manjiro (Joaquin Pedro Valdes), who left Japan and has now returned, under pain of death, filled with ideas about what he’s seen in America, and Kayama (Takuro Ohno), prefecture of police who receives a string of promotions, not all entirely welcome, and tries to put on a brave face. Ultimately, the pair are two sides of the same coin as they grapple with all the changes.

This isn’t a show where the songs are belted out. The singing style for the most part is reflective rather than bombastic, though diction is something of an issue. Comic, or at least satirical, relief comes in the form of a quartet of European (American, British, Dutch and Russian) diplomats playing up to national stereotypes. Naturally, the British envoy gets a Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche, and Lee V G as the Russian shows off a sonorous bass voice.

Masashi Fujimoto is affecting as the Old Man, with his first-hand memories of the Americans’ arrival in “Someone in a Tree” (one of Sondheim’s personal favourites), and Ohno’s performance of “Bowler Hat” sharply critiques the insidious influence of middle-class western culture.

The final montage evoking Japan’s future as a technological superpower, which in the 20th century did the same things to other East Asian nations that the United States tried to do to it, is a visual tour-de-force and shows that AI can be a positive tool if used wisely.

If Pacific Overtures were written today, there would be a considerable amount of controversy about the fact that it’s created by two white New Yorkers with no lived experience of Japanese culture – somewhat navigated here by a cast of Asian descent (this hasn’t always been the case).

This is bucket list Sondheim, and while seeing it performed isn’t going to turn it into a new favourite (at least not for this reviewer), White’s production offers the opportunity to see it handsomely presented and as more than just an anomaly.

Pacific Overtures is at the Menier Chocolate Factory through 24 February. Book Pacific Overtures tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Pacific Overtures (Photo by Manuel Harlan)

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