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As with nearly all Sondheim shows, the critics were divided when
Pacific Overtures bowed on Broadway. It also had the great misfortune
to open the same season as A Chorus Line, which became one of the
longest-running musicals of all time. But time and subsequent
productions have shown that there is much more here than some of those
The story of Commodore Matthew Perry's 1853 journey to "open" Japan to foreign trade sounds an unlikely premise for a musical. But playwright John Weidman and composer Stephen Sondheim tell the story from the Japanese point of view, using the experiences of two men, a samurai and a fisherman, to chart the cultural impact of gunboat diplomacy on Japanese society. Director Hal Prince (Evita, Phantom of the Opera) borrowed elements of traditional Japanese Noh and Kabuki theatre, including the use of an all-Asian, (nearly) all- male cast. Combined with brilliant designs and costumes, Pacific Overtures is a feast for the eyes as well as the heart and mind.
The original Broadway production was filmed on stage at the Winter Garden Theatre in New York for airing on Japanese television. Sadly, that recording has never been (legally) commercially available in the US, though gray-market copies of varying quality do circulate. The brilliant, Tony-nominated performance of Mako as the Reciter (narrator) is preserved along with outstanding work by Sab Shimono, Soon-Teck Oh, Isao Sato, Alvin Ing, Yuki Shimoda, and the rest of the cast. That these wonderfully talented performers are not more of a household name is really a crime.
Finally, a musical can only be as good as its score, and Pacific Overtures has one of the finest ever written. Aided by Jonathan Tunick's brilliant and powerful orchestrations, songs such as "Poems", "Someone In A Tree", "There Is No Other Way", "Please Hello", "Pretty Lady", and "A Bowler Hat" are as beautiful as anything Sondheim has ever written. It is no small coincidence that several selections from the score have been turned into an orchestral suite of dances that have been performed and recorded by symphonic orchestras.
Pacific Overtures is engaging, moving, thought-provoking, and often quite funny as well. Don't miss any opportunity that comes your way to see it.
I loved this show, Stephen Sondheim and Hal Prince put there hearts
into this wonderful production which I saw 4 times at the Kennedy
Center in Dec. of 75' and once at the Winter Garden in NY in 76' and
then the revival at the Round About Theater in 2005. I have seen most
of Sondheim's shows and loved them all but especially this one, Pacific
Overtures was under appreciated at the time but still lives in my
memory as a great theater experience, the cast of all male all Asian
actors were some of the best performers of that time and I especially
like Mako who always was at his best in each performance I went to...
I would really like to get a copy of the Pacific Overtures TV Movie made in Japan in 1976, any one know how to get a copy of it?
Pacific Overtures is not one of Stephen Sondheim's best, and it's easy to see why critics were divided by it and it doesn't have the best of stories in the world. It does however have one of his greatest songs in Someone in a Tree(Sondheim himself thought so), it is interesting for the use of Kabuki and the lyrics as ever with Sondheim are very intelligently crafted. And this performance is a classic. The production values aren't grand and orchestra doesn't have the epic sweep of some of Sondheim's other musicals and other performances of his work. However the costumes and sets are pretty to watch with an authentic Oriental style and the orchestra still play beautifully. The drama is compellingly staged, with poignancy and power in abundance, and Please Hello in particular matches the mixed styles used in the song. The songs are excellent across the board, especially Mako's definitive performance- if you're in doubt see his rendition of There is No Other Way- and Alan Ing, Chrysanthemum Tea shows complete command of the lyrics and Welcome to Kanagawa is funny. All in all, Pacific Overtures is interesting and this 1976 production with the original cast if memory serves correct is just great. 10/10 Bethany Cox
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