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Chromolume takes on “Pacific Overtures”

It is startling to consider the creative output of Stephen Sondheim.

West Side Story (1957-lyrics only), Gypsy (1959-again lyrics only), A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1959), Company (1970), Follies (1971), A Little Night Music (1973), Pacific Overtures (1976), Sweeney Todd (1979), Merrily We Roll Along (1981), Sunday in the Park with George (1984), Into the Woods (1987), Assassins (1990), Passion (1994).

And then you have his “minor” works; his parody of “The Girl from Ipanema” for The Mad Show (1966 – credited to “Esteban Rio Nido, a translation of Stephen Sondheim”), co-writing eleven episodes of the ‘50s TV series Topper starring Leo G. Carroll, the screenplay for The Last of Sheila (1973 – co written with actor Anthony Perkins for which they received a 1974 Edgar Award), the music for the film Reds (1980), five songs for Warren Beatty’s film, Dick Tracy (1990), guest starring on The Simpsons (“Yokel Chords” – 2007).

That is not the tip of the iceberg, either.

That is the tip of the tip of the iceberg.

Nor to the best of my knowledge, has Sondheim ever had a bona fide “flop.”

Merrily We Roll Along and Assassins both did poorly in New York, but the former had a highly successful run in London and the latter was a hit in Los Angeles.

Sondheim, now in his eighties, has been a force in American theatre like few others, and the American musical will never be the same for that presence, having lifted the bar to a staggering height for those who follow him.

 

It is safe to say, I think, that Sondheim and Pacific Overtures/Follies are to musical theatre what Shakespeare and Hamlet/King Lear are to the dramatic stage; with all of those shows named being endeavors of near spirit-crushing demands.

Pacific Overtures Ensemble

Front, L to R — Kevin Matsumoto, Paul Wong, Julia May Wong, Daniel Koh, Marcel Licera, Peter Jeensalute. (Photo by Ederson Vasquez)

Sondheim loves to make musicals from the most unlikely of candidates: a serial killer, presidential assassinations, the Bruno Bettelheim’s classic The Uses of Enchantment.  But the most ambitious of his undertakings must be Pacific Overtures, which tells the story of the opening of Japan to the West by Commodore Matthew C. Perry in 1853 at the behest of President Millard Fillmore.

 

When it originally opened on Broadway in 1976 it was done in high Kabuki style with the cream of Asian American talents from Mako to the incomparable Freda Foh Shen.

Even then it opened to mixed reviews and closed after six months, still receiving, however, ten Tony nominations.

 

Since then the daunting requirements of the show has made it one of Sondheim’s least produced yet most popular shows.

 

The Chromolume Theatre has been the site of some stunning successes, and while their Pacific Overtures is not of that rank, it is still a staging of note.

The later Sondheim, and some might say the best Sondheim, are ensemble pieces almost exclusively, and as such they thrive or wither.   The Chromolume Theatre production directed by James Esposito with choreography by Michael Marchak has bitten off more than they can chew with neither the space nor the means to produce this show.

That said, the audaciousness of the undertaking is to be applauded, and the success that they do manage to achieve to be acknowledged.

Both Esposito and Marchak challenge the venue’s limitations with persistence and at times even triumphs.  The ensemble is best displayed in the work of Paul Wong in the role Mako originated, and in the performances of Cesar Cipriano, Daniel Koh and Julia May Wong.   The rest of the cast is somewhat uneven and a tad too youthful for the responsibility given them; but neither the youthfulness of cast nor confines of venue dim the merits of Sondheim’s music and lyrics or the book by John Weidman.

Cesar Cipriano, Marcel Licera

Cesar Cipriano, Marcel Licera – Photo by Ederson Vasquez

The story of the American opening of Japan is a fascinating tale and all too timely today.

Whatever the production’s shortcomings, The Chromolume Theatre has provided audiences with the opportunity of seeing a seldom produced masterpiece, and one that offers not only a valuable and much needed history lesson, but a toe-tapping history lesson to boot.

 

Completely satisfying? Perhaps not, but entertaining yes, and a testament to a company that has the willingness to stride where others merely cringe.

 

In closing, let me say, that my lovely wife Marlene thought it was a perfect production.

♦     ♦     ♦

 

Pacific Overtures

is playing at

Chromolume Theatre at The Attic

5429 W. Washington Blvd.

(Between the 10 Freeway and Hauser Blvd.)

Los Angeles 90016

From

Dec.  1 – 17, 2017

Fridays and Saturdays at  8pm

Sundays at 2pm  and  7pm

For Tickets and Information
go to
www.crtheatre.com

or phone
(323) 205–1617


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<p>An award-winning L.A. playwright and rabble-rouser of note who has hoisted glasses with Orson Welles, been arrested on three continents and once beat up Charlie Manson. His first play, “Among the Vipers” was a semi-finalist in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition and was featured in the Carnegie-Mellon Showcase of New Plays. It was produced at the NPT Theater in Ashland, Oregon and Los Angeles’ celebrated Odyssey Ensemble Theatre. His following play, “The Little Boy Who Loved Monsters” was produced at The Hollywood Actors Theater, where he earned praise from the Los Angeles Times for his “…inordinately creative writing.” The play went on to numerous other productions including Berlin’s The Black Theatre under the direction of Rainer Fassbinder who wrote in his program notes of Kearney, “He is a skilled playwright, but more importantly he is a dangerous one.” Ernest Kearney has worked as literary manager or as dramaturge for among others The Hudson Theater Guild, Nova Diem and the Odyssey Ensemble Theatre, where he still serves on the play selection committee. He has been the recipient of two Dramalogue Awards and a finalist or semi-finalist, three times, in the Julie Harris Playwriting Competition. His work has been performed by Michael Dunn, Sandra Tsing Loh, Jack Colvin and Billy Bob Thornton, and to date, either as playwright or director, he has upwards of a hundred and thirty productions under his belt, including a few at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater as puppeteer. After a wild and misspent youth, which lasted well into middle age, Kearney has settled down and is focusing on his writing, as well as living happily ever after with his lovely wife Marlene. Ernest’s stage reviews and social essays can be found at TheTVolution.com and workingauthor.com. Follow him on Facebook.</p>

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