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A CurtainUp PhiladelphisReview
Pacific Overtures

Commodore Perry was instrumental in producing a treaty to begin trade with Japan, a Pacific Overture, which at first opened just one Japanese port. Not an American military invasion, it was the beginning of a cultural invasion, after which Japan would never be the same. There is resonance with current American interests abroad and with internal political intrigues in a country grappling with Westernization, making this an ideal time to stage Pacific Overtures.

Although not actually Kabuki theater, the Arden production employs an all male cast in the Kabuki tradition. Characters are essentially caricatures, although many have heart. The reciter (Arthur T. Acuna) narrates the background, parts of the story, sings, and plays several roles. Acuna, a compelling actor, commands the stage with his presence and skill.

The story he tells intertwines the tale of the arrival of Commodore Perry's fleet with the story of two lowly Japanese men. Kayama, a nobody, who by fortune becomes a bigwig and becomes Westernized in the process, is ably and touchingly played by Rich Ceraulo. The other man's fortunes also change. Manjiro (Jorge E. Maldonaldo) is enamored of America. A convict slated for execution, he is saved by Kayama and by his own wits. Maldonaldo does a fine job in the role. Scott Greer's versatility and virtuosity in several roles, notably the Shogun's mother, adds panache as do the performances of Bev Appleton (among other fine roles, Madam to the Kanagawa Girls) and Glenn Townsend, acting in several capacities. In fact, all the actors are remarkable, although not all voices are strong and clear.

The play is performed in the round. Soaring red architectural elements, initially saturated in red light dominate the vertical space. These are three squares, which form a pagoda roof above the stage. Stunning, simple, and effective, they are used ingeniously, both separately and together, to define the space and its changing functions. The performance space also extends to the hanimichi (entrance to a platform or runway) and the balcony in front of the screened musicians, to the far sides of the theatre, and the aisles. There is cagey use of a puppet emperor, and the costumes are well thought out, ranging from black everyday attire to colorful, elaborate kimonos.

The opening songs establish the medieval, agrarian life of 19th century Japan, which is centered around the planting of the rice. Then American ships loom ominously in the harbor and the song, "Four Black Dragons" reflects the anxiety of the local population. There are moments of devilishly clever lyrics, notably in "Chrysanthemum Tea"" sung by Scott Greer as the Shogun's mother. However, a few other songs' lyrics are hard to understand. "Please, Hello" is a case in point. (But even without getting all of it, the nod to Gilbert & Sullivan can't be missed.) "Next," sung at the end is difficult to decipher. Many of the songs in Pacific Overtures are more accessible than some Sondheim songs from other shows; still, even these can be dense and inscrutable, as they say. Notable were the reed instrument and the drums, and the musical accompaniment was consistently good.

One cautionary note: The show is not without confusion. While the story principally follows the fortunes of two men, it also spans the years from 1853 to the present. Themes of change and a country's internal conflict are clear, but it is hard to reconcile the story of the two men with the denouement. All of a sudden it's the present, the information age, dominated by Japanese products. This works with the theme of change, but does not completely fit and satisfy the personal story we have been following for a couple of hours. The fault, if there is one, lies with the writer and lyricist rather than with this production.

Terrence J. Nolen's masterful direction results in precise coordination of all the show's elements. The seamless timing, fine physical acting, and wonderful, expressive use of light and color make for an impressive Arden production.

For a review of the Lincoln Center Festival's Japanese version last year go here

Pacific Overtures
music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
book by John Weidman, additional material, Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Terrence J. Nolen
Cast: Arthur Acuna, Bev Appleton, Billy Bustamante, Rich Ceraulo, Derrick Cobey, Scott Greer, Adam Michael Kaokept, C. Mingo Long, Jorge E. Maldonaldo, Steve Pacek, Glenn Townsend, Rob Tucker
Scenic Design: James Kronzer
Lighting Design: Daniel M. Wagner
Costume Design: Marla Jurglanis
Sound Design: Jorge Cousineau
Choreographer: Myra Bazell; fight choreographer: Geoffrey Kershner
Musical Director: Eric Ebbenga
Running time 2 1/2 hours including one 15 min. intermission o5/22/03- 06/22/03;< opening 05/27/03

Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 05/28 performance

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