New Production of Stephen Sondheim's Pacific Overtures Begins Melbourne Premiere Engagement Feb. 19

By Adam Hetrick
19 Feb 2014

Anton Berezin
Anton Berezin

Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman's Tony Award-nominated musical Pacific Overtures receives its professional Melbourne premiere beginning Feb. 19.

Watch This and Manilla Street Productions unite to produce Pacific Overtures, which runs through March 9 at Theatre Works' 144-seat venue. Alister Smith directs the production, which features a Tony-nominated score by Sondheim and a Tony-nominated book by Weidman.

The cast is led by Anton Berezin as Reciter, Adrian Li Donni as Kayama and Nick Simpson-Deeks as Manjiro. Completing the company are Bianca Baykara, Reece Budin, Emma Clair Ford, Jacqui Hoy, Andrew Kroenert, Noni McCallum, Tim Paige, Elenor Smith Adams, Sonya Suares and Leighton Young.

The creative team includes choreographer Michael Ralph, musical director Robyn Womersley, set designer Eugyeene Teh, lighting designer Rob Sowinski and costume and make-up designer Chloe Greaves.



"Cross-racial and cross-gender casting will be a major feature of this production," Watch This artistic director Sonya Suares previously told Playbill.com. "It feels consistent with the logic of a work set in Japan by an American playwright and is another way to foreground its intrinsic theatricality. It allows us to claim the act of story-telling - and therefore the story - and invites audiences to come along in such a way that keeps them thinking and present."

Watch This previously staged Sondheim and Weidman's Assassins as the company's first project. "It's an incredibly bold and provocative piece of theatre, which makes it the perfect choice to follow Assassins, our first Watch This project," Suares added. "Like Assassins, Pacific Overtures offers up a lot of challenging ideas and doesn't provide any neat answers to the questions it raises. It's also a fabulous ensemble piece, one that really showcases actors' transformative powers. It felt both serendipitous and affirming to meet Karen Jemison [creative producer of Manilla Street Productions] who was equally passionate about staging this work."

Pacific Overtures follows the introduction of Japan to western civilization, beginning with the landing of Commodore Matthew Perry at the "Floating Kingdom" of Nippon in 1853. The musical evokes the old world of shoguns, screens, poems, rice, tea, bows and flowers to present the story of a fisherman and a samurai who are sent to rid the secluded island nation of the encroaching "black ships" of America.

"Pacific Overtures is an epic play," director Smith commented. "It is epic structurally, thematically and theatrically. It is a musical that deals with the ideas of identity, country, politics, love, war and peace. Our challenge is supporting its scope and scale aesthetically, within the constraints of an intimate theatre space. I'm imagining a constructivist or Brechtian feel to this production: making stark choices, exposing the mechanics of the theatre and inviting the audience to employ their imagination. We will investigate not only the traditional Kabuki suggestions within the text but also look to and draw from other Japanese theatrical forms like Noh theatre and Butoh. I envisage underscoring the scenes with a movement vocabulary that allows us to explore the inner emotional landscape of the characters and the play as a whole."

The Sondheim score includes "The Advantages of Floating in the Middle of the Sea," "There Is No Other Way," "Four Black Dragons," "Chrysanthemum Tea," "I Will Make a Poem," "Welcome to Kanagawa," "Someone in a Tree," "Lion Dance," "Please Hello!," "A Bowler Hat," "Pretty Lady" and "Next."

Pacific Overtures debuted at Broadway's Winter Garden Theatre on Jan. 11, 1976, and ran for 193 performances. Originally directed by Hal Prince, the work garnered ten Tony nominations, winning two: Best Costume Design (Florence Klotz) and Best Scenic Design (Boris Aronson). A 2004 Broadway revival ran for 93 performances.

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