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Review - Pacific Overtures

Menier Chocolate Factory

Playing until 24th February 2024



Review {AD-PR Invite}

First published on Everything Theatre

Told from the perspective of the Japanese, Pacific Overtures follows the lives of a few selected individuals, primarily Kayama (Takuro Ohno), a samurai turned prefect of police and then governor of Uraga, and Manjiro (Joaquin Pedro Valdes), a fishmen who was lost at sea and rescued by the Americans, returning to Japan to warn them of the arrival of Americans, which forcibly opened Japan to other countries. Kayama and Manjiro’s actions are largely dictated by the will of the Shogun (Saori Oda), who is ruling over the country on behalf of a figurehead emperor.


The audience embarks on a journey narrated by the Reciter (Jon Chew), who highlights some of the key events of the story through a combination of spoken words and musical numbers. The people of Japan were aligned in their views of the Americans at first, to which the ensemble all contribute to the shared distaste of the American’s arrival and the desire to kick them off the home soil. John Weidman’s book, Hugh Wheeler’s additional materials and Matthew White’s direction present a clear and delightful immersion of how quickly the people’s views and mentality changed after more countries begin to arrive and the Japanese people became influenced by other cultures. Eventually, even the emperor embraced the changing culture and modernisation, shedding his imperial robes and taking on more modern attires, celebrating Japan’s advancement in technologies and position in the world.


The opposing views are best captured by the contrasting evolutions of Kayama and Manjiro. These characters start as loyal servants to the Japanese people, working together upon the American’s first visit. Kayama wears traditional samurai clothing and places his trust in his swords, and although Manjiro wears westernised clothing due to the time he spent with his rescuers, he is loyal to his country. The two characters shared a close bond, channelling their brotherhood and views through the sensational musical number “Poems”. Ohnoand Valdes each give sensational performances of their characters, with their outlooks beginning to diverge; Kayama becomes more and more westernised in this clothing, ultimately preferring a gun over a sword, while Manjiro relinquishes the clothing of his American rescuers, taking on the samurai clothing and the way of the sword. The book lends itself to the growth of two characters, who, despite starting at the same place, finish on opposing sides, and how changes in life can affect friends.


However, elements of the musical feel jagged and under explained. While it’s implied that Kayama’s wife, Tamate (Kanako Nakano) committed suicide due to a lack of communication from her husband and she presumed the worst, the trigger of this event and the emotional impact this has on Kayama could have been better explored. Similarly, while Ohno’s transition from a traditional Japanese man to a suit wearing governor takes centre stage, insights into Manjiro’s thinking and what influenced him to oppose the Shogun would have enriched the material.


Far from a grand musical stage, this is a scaled back production in a relatively small venue, and because of this, White is able to create an intimate experience and showcase some of the intricate details of the lighting design by Paul Pyant, giving the audience a view of the subtle rain drops and the movement of fishes in a river, adding layers to the otherwise simple stage.


While appreciating the challenges of choreographing a sword fight and synchronisation with sound effects, it was baffling that the sound of clashing samurai swords was only used for a small subset of the fights, undermining the realism and spectacle of them without any sound effects. This is also a particular issue for a production where the audience is close enough to see that the swords don’t actually touch in many of the scenes.


The talented creative team behind this production deliver an imaginative showcase of Sondheim and Weidman’s work, conveying a clear message of nationalism, celebration of the clash of cultures, and how a country and its people can adopt new viewpoints in its journey to modernise and overcome adversity.


Creatives

Book: John Weidman

Music and Lyrics: Stephen Sondheim

Additional Material: Hugh Wheeler

Director: Matthew White

Musical Director: Paul Bogaev

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