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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Pacific Overtures
Union Theatre      Summer 2014

Stephen Sondheim's 1975 musical failed on Broadway, but subsequent revivals have displayed its merits more successfully, and this small-scale production is particularly strong in evoking the delicate tone and atmosphere on which the whole thing depends. 

Sondheim was in the middle of his unlikely-subject-for-a-musical period, and here chose the nineteenth-century opening of Japan to foreign trade after centuries of isolation, hardly your typical boy-meets-girl stuff. 

To compound matters he, writer John Weidman and original director Hal Prince wanted to use or at least evoke the feeling of traditional Japanese stage and musical forms in telling the story. 

It is just that quality the Japanese-ness that director-choreographer Michael Strassen gets so very right in this revival. 

From the strong stage-holding performance of Ken Christiansen as the ever-present narrating Reciter, through the delicate and never overdone exoticness of the movements, to the versatility of the all-male cast, the opening half-hour or so establishes a sense of a theatrically convincing 'Japan' that carries through the evening and even over a few rough patches later on. 

All the Japanese-flavoured musical numbers in this production work beautifully, but oddly it is the more conventionally Western (and presumably easier) songs that fall flat.

'Please Hello', the darkly comic routine in which a parody American, Englishman, Frenchman and the like represent the various invading fleets, isn't funny enough, while committing the cardinal Sondheim sin of muddying the witty lyrics. 

Earlier, 'Chrysanthemum Tea' is played at half speed, obscuring its wit, while later 'Pretty Lady' (ironically the loveliest melody in the whole score) falls between the stools of sweetness and ominousness when the director should have chosen one or the other.

But those are bumps along the way, and whenever things get back into Japanese mode the production regains its balance and its strong hold on the audience. 

In addition to Ken Christiansen there are strong performances by Oli Reynolds and Emanuel Alba as the minor Japanese officials forced to deal with the foreigners Reynolds' quietly sad account of his slow westernisation makes 'A Bowler Hat' one of the high points and by an entire cast as effective in dance, movement and instant characterisations as in song.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Pacific Overtures - Union Theatre 2014

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