Pacific Overtures is Sondheim at his finest. Written by John Weidman and music by Stephen Sondheim, it truly is a magnificent homage to Japan. Pacific Overtures follows Japan through the late 18th century, focusing on the entry of American forces and other Western ships, through the story of low level warrior Kayama and young fisherman Manjiro as they unexpectedly play a pivotal role. Based on true events, and rooted in fiction, Pacific Overtures becomes a stunning new perspective on these historical events as told from the perspective of the Japanese. Framed and cleverly narrated by the Reciter (a dazzling Jon Chews), the show puts the audience in the centre.
Sario Solomon delivers a passionate performance as Manjiro, simultaneously making the audience laugh and sob. Sadly, the role has limited time on stage, yet Solomon shines and leaves his impact. A shoutout to Solomon who swung on as the lead role Manjiro (instead of Joaquin Pedro Valdes) for a double show day with short notice. Takura Ohno, contrastingly, takes a more grounded and subtle approach to Kayama, and evokes emotions. Beautifully understated, he becomes the shows emotional tethers. Welding silence and screams as weapons, Ohno wrenches emotions out of the audience in a devastating scene.
Directed by Matthew White, the two characters are perfectly paired as attracting and opposing forces, and it's the emotional symbolism of their relationship that proves the intelligence of the show. The duo are given poems to duet, and the poetic and lyrical metaphors of the lyrics are truly thought-provoking. Without revealing much, there are several significantly emotional and powerful moments in the show that revolve around their friendship. From the very first song "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea" until the show's final song "Next", the unique style of Sondheim is evident.
With strong ensemble numbers, and flawless choreography, the show flows seamlessly. In a Sondheim trademark, the lyrics educate and entertain the audience of the story and it's mesmerising to see the words come to life through movement (You-Ri Yamanaka.) A particularly outstanding song and choreography is "Please Hello" which frankly is reason enough to rush to the show. A rapid timeline of the slowly Western terrorisation of Japan, the show features the Japanese Shogun (portrayed by the brilliant Saori Oda) being confronted by American, British, Dutch, Russian and French forces. The choreography is stellar (Ashley Nottingham), oozing with the best of each culture, and the slow blending of this into the rigidity of the Japanese movement. Constantly catching the audience and Shogun by surprise, we see an explosion of colour, of personality, of gifts and of bombings in the background. The ensemble members JoJo Meredith, Lee VG, Eu Jin Hwang, Patrick Munday and Ethan Le Phong do an exceptional job here.
Set in a traverse staging (the stage is in the middle and audiences face each other), there's a constant sense of intimacy and involvement, especially when the cast direct dialogues and reactions at the audience. The musical, though rich and in touch with the culture, is fairly minimal with the main story setting, in the form of moving golden screens that are moved into place (set design by Paul Farnsworth). The cast are transformed in traditional Japanese attire (Ayoka Maeda and Wakana Yoshihara) and it's a real treat to be able to see this in real time. The lighting and sound design (Paul Pyant and Gregory Clarke) and the use of projections (Leo Flint) are great and add a lot to the show, often helping distinguish between parallel plots, places and time.
The main and only downside with Pacific Overtures is its attempt to present two strong, almost competing ideas in the short duration of the musical. Equally solid storylines are the emotion based narrative of Manjiro and Kayama, and the more entertaining and intelligent highlights into the history of Japan. Whilst the two do interweave frequently, it's not enough and as a result both storylines suffer from lack of stage time.
Pacific Overtures is a musical masterpiece in the finest artistry of theatre and is an absolute must watch. Currently playing at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 24th February 2024 - for more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.
AD | gifted tickets in return for an honest review | photography by Manuel Harlan