Robert Tanitch reviews Pacific Overtures at Union Theatre, London SE1
Pacific Overtures, the least accessible and least performed of Stephen Sondheim’s musicals; has always been too esoteric for most audiences. In New York in 1976 it closed after 193 performances, having lost its entire investment. When it was premiered in London by English National Opera in 1987 it played to 30%.
From 1638 to 1853 Japan was a feudal society and remained isolated from the outside world. The story deals with America’s determination to open up Japan to foreign trade. Modern Japan began with the gunboat diplomacy of Commodore Matthew Perry’s expedition.
The action is dramatised from the Japanese point of view and written by John Weidman in a series of scenes rather than a continuous narrative. What should the Japanese do? Expel or accommodate the barbarians?
The humour comes from the ineffectuality of the Shogun to deal with the crisis and their reliance on the wiles of a samurai (Oli Reynolds) and a fisherman (Emanuel Alba) to foil the aggressors. The music becomes increasingly westernised as the British, the Dutch, the Russians and the French jump on the American bandwagon.
A Kabuki lion is transformed into Uncle Sam and behaves like a vaudeville artist strutting the stage, a witty parody of America’s jingoistic imperialism. In the final anti-American number, Next, the lyrics have been up-dated.