Sondheim, samurai, and scintillating theatre

By Bradley Storer

Out of nowhere a figure dashed onstage, the lights suddenly cutting out accompanied by a sudden strike of the drum. The lights slowly return to reveal a painted emblem emblazoned on the floor of the stage, the ensō – the Buddhist circle which expresses the moment of creativity uninhibited by the conscious mind. Into this symbolic void enters the ensemble of Pacific Overtures, clad entirely in white, taking their places around the ensō and beginning their first song: a choral ode to the cyclical serenity of feudal Japan, undisturbed by the outside world.

PACIFIC OVERTURES Photo Credit Jodie Hutchinson

Pacific Overtures, one of Stephen Sondheim’s more modest and lesser-known masterpieces, is an imaginative exploration of the moment in history when Japan was first forced into contact with Western civilization. Sondheim’s score, a minimalistic collection derived from the structures and principles of Asian music, is a distant cousin to the operatic scope of his work before and after, but is nevertheless a theatrical tour de force.

The cast are so strong both dramatically and vocally that it is extremely difficult to pick an outstanding performance. As a whole they perfectly capture the stylized but intensely emotionally and characterful style of kabuki theatre, and in their individual solos they all unveil beautiful and powerful voices – in the ensemble numbers they blend together in wondrous harmony. The closest would be Adrian Li Donni as Kayama, the samurai whose meteoric rise to power and subsequent corruption strings the plot together both narratively and emotionally. Donni’s open and expressive face (along with a golden singing voice) flawlessly captures the innocence and good nature of this warrior catapulted into diplomatic office.

Director Alister Smith, along with choreographer Michael Ralph, have done an exemplary job of building the striking dramatic images that make up this epic tale. A terror-stricken mob of villagers gathering as they spot the oncoming American armada, a hilarious pageant of prostitutes preparing to welcome American sailors, a traditional Kabuki dance exploding into a demented vaudevillian cake-walk danced by a demonic Uncle Sam. In a quieter moment, the song ‘Poems’ spins together the heart-meltingly lyrical tenors of Donni and Nick Simpson-Deeks into a sequence of heart-ravishing loveliness.

This production of Pacific Overtures is a seamless meeting of dramatic intensity, musical beauty and compelling story performed by a highly skilled company of actors and handled by an endlessly inventive creative team!

Venue: Theatreworks, 14 Acland St, St Kilda

Date: 19 Feb 2014 – 09 Mar 2014

Time: Tue to Sat 7.30pm, Sun 5pm

Preview: Wed 19 Feb 7.30pm & Thu 20 Feb 2pm

Price: $39 / $35 8+ / $29 conc

Bookings: Online at or phone 03 9534 338803 9534 338803 9534 338803 9534 3388