Thursday, December 19, 2013

Terrific Overtures

Photos by Danny Kim.

Critics have often been as confused and confounded by Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures as the Japanese were by the warships of Commodore Perry, whose arrival in Uraga Harbor in 1853 kick-starts this unique melding of Eastern and Western stage traditions. The original Broadway production - helmed by Harold Prince - leaned shockingly far (for its day) toward kabuki and bunraku conventions; in the largely Japanese cast, men played women, while the child-Emperor was represented by a puppet. And Sondheim, for his part, composed much of his score in a kind of japonaise style, based on pentatonic scales.

The score was still obviously Sondheim, however, which meant it was still Broadway - and still New York. Indeed, that sense of double identity eventually becomes a theme of the show itself, as Japan, having been rudely shaken from its tea ceremonies, first militarily dominates the Pacific, and then "pacifically" matches the West at its own global economic game.

Still, despite the sophistication of its concept and execution, audiences stayed away, and Overtures was over after only a few months.  That failure, combined with its unusual performance requirements, have led to only a few major revivals, despite its exquisite score (Sondheim himself has rated the Rashomon-inspired "Someone in a Tree" as his personal favorite among his songs).

The timing seems right, however, for another revival (given recent rumblings between Japan, Korea and China), and BU has seized the opportunity with a high-energy student version, brashly but brilliantly directed by Jim Petosa, Director of the School of Theatre (and also Artistic Director of the New Rep).  

Petosa has made one big gamble: although he has hewed closely to most of the Asian conventions of the staging, he has often cast Western kids as Japanese with a "So-be-it!" shrug. For some, in these sensitive days, this will no doubt be off-putting - even though such casting is entirely in concert with Sondheim's Broadway-in-kabuki-clothing conceit. Still, the college students behind me were agog at intermission. "This is so racist," one gasped to another.

"Yeah, but it's great, isn't it?" came the reply.

A date with the puppet Emperor in Pacific Overtures.  Photos by Danny Kim.

And mostly, it is. This must have been a pet project for Petosa, because he directs with an inspired fire we've rarely seen from him at the New Rep.  He's helped by superb design from MFA students Ryan Bates (set), Chelsea Kerl (costumes) and Katy Atwell (lighting) - indeed, you could be forgiven for assuming this was a Huntington show. And the orchestra, under the direction of Matthew Stern, is even more amazing, especially given that the orchestration has been pared down from its original lushness (and given that there are inevitable balance problems in the Calderwood Pavilion). Yet despite all this, I felt this was the first time I'd heard the delicate East-West tension in Sondheim's writing given its due.

The cast size has likewise been reduced - which means these college talents sometimes dash from one role, and kimono, to another (this version is co-ed, and sometimes cross-gendered). It also must be admitted that these young actors are more prone to showiness than subtlety - some characterizations (such as the Shogun's Mother) lack their original sinister undertones.  But I often felt the kick they gave the high concept was just what it needed. And most of the performances - particularly those from leads Charles Coursey, Jr. and Evan Gambardella - are quite accomplished (there are also hilarious cameos from Harrison Bryan and Kristian Sorensen). The effective choreography, executed passionately by this tireless cast, is by McCaela Donovan and Stephen Ursprung. The vocals weren't quite as secure - Sondheim's chiming orchestrations don't always offer a clear opening tone, and there was fairly-frequent "scooping" up to proper pitches. But this quibble was easily forgotten given the overall energy of the show. And just btw, tonight is the last bow for this startling production. Sorry about that - I know this review is last-minute; but Sondheim fans are advised to make it over to these Overtures before they're gone.

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