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A CurtainUp Review
Sayonara the Musical
Private Joe Kelly (Edward Tolve) is aching to marry Katsumi (Natsuko Hirano), even though they both know he won't be able to bring her into the United States. He asks his friend, Major Lloyd "Ace” Gruver (Morgan McCann), to be his best man. Ace disapproves of the match and tries to talk Joe out of it. But when he sees it's a lost cause, he agrees to stand up for his buddy. The newlyweds move into their love nest, blissfully content.
Life is less simple for Ace. The son of a general, he's been dating another general's daughter, Eileen (Jennifer Piacenti), whose mother, Miriam (Sandy York), all but pushes them down the aisle. She doesn't get very far. Eileen, newly arrived in Japan, tells Ace she's hesitant to marry him. She sees him becoming like his father, doggedly devoting himself to duty and leaving her, alone, to keep the home fires burning.
Meanwhile Miriam indulges in her favorite pastime: sneering at the locals. From atop a pedestal of privilege, she looks down on the Japanese with a fiercely exaggerated hauteur that teeters on the verge of caricature. Surely people this prejudiced exist, but you would think they' occasionally come up for air.
Miriam is not alone. Colonel Craford (Justin R.G. Holcomb) is a veritable Inspector Javert hunting down uniformed Jean Valjeans. He's always on the lookout for soldiers fraternizing with local women. (Fraternization becomes illegal shortly after the musical begins).
Miriam's husband, General Mark Webster (Scott Klavan), is cut from the same cloth as his wife and colleague, but he's not nearly so zealous. Clearly a racist, he ensures that Captain Mike Bailey (Justin McEllroy) and his date Fumiko (Rumi Oyama) are kept out of the officer's club, even though there's technically no rule against Fumiko's entering. He's in favor of but less obsessed with segregating Japanese, making him more of a person and less of a cartoon.
Colonel Craford's efforts are especially aimed at Mike and Ace. Ace, after hearing Eileen express her doubts about their future together, has fallen love with Hana-Ogi (Ya Han Chang), the lead performer in the Takarazuka dance troupe. His attraction to her is hard to fathom. He falls for her when he sees her onstage, dressed as a man, in an unexceptional performance. Once they're together her face is frozen in an unrelenting frown – understandable, given her fear of the anti-fraternizing decree – but overdone and hardly attractive.
Sayonara wears its anti-discrimination message on its sleeve, and director Tisa Chang does nothing to rein it in. Bigots are not just writ large; they are played large as well.
Singing is generally good, and the acting is adequate with a few standouts. In the very small role of the flower seller, Michiko Sasaki makes a very big impression. Hunched over and hardly speaking, she's completely immersed in her character. And when "Night of Love” finds the entire company dancing at the Tanabata Festival, she joins right in with mincing steps and an old person's tentative physicality, especially noteworthy when she does a big, but characteristically stiff, turn as her fellow dancers twirl.
Ako Dachs as Teruko-San, the mama-san of the Takarazuka troupe, brings a quiet authority to her role. Firm but calm, she's perfect at marshalling the all-female troupe around. And then there's Natsuko Hirano as Katsumi. With her seemingly indefatigable energy, she's a burst of sunshine. We see why Joe married her despite the looming logistical challenges.
Even when she finds out Joe's been transferred stateside, her energy continues to radiate. But behind the scenes, she and Joe are considerably less life-affirming.
Costumes are at their best when draping the Takarazuka dancers. Japanese kimonos by Keiko Obremski are elegant and feature a variety of lovely patterns, while Carol A. Pelletier's satiny Western-style frocks in bright colors flatter the pretty young women who wear them.
George Fischoff's music is at its best during the rousing all-company production numbers. (The same is true of the musical itself.) Japanese-tinged numbers are interesting if less stirring, while typical American-style ballads are pedestrian. The show's backbone, William Luce's book, is heavy-handed and dated, and that, unfortunately, is what you take away from Sayonara.