Archive Feature: Pacific Overtures (2014)

To celebrate 40 years of Theatre Works, we produced an exhibition in association with the Linden Gallery showcasing memorabilia, artwork and marketing content from our four decades of operation. The Reflect and Rejoice Exhibition was unfortunately cancelled due to the global health situation, but we’d still love to share some memories with you from throughout our storied history.

Every second week – between Spotlight Shows – we will be looking back on iconic Theatre Works productions, giving an insight into the history of the work and how it came to life on our stage.

Watch This is Australia’s first and only Sondheim repertory company. In 2014, they collaborated with Manilla Street Productions and Theatre Works to produce Pacific OverturesPacific Overtures is an underproduced musical with music and lyrics by Steven Sondheim, and a book by John Weidman. It was first produced in 1976 and it was performed at Theatre Works from February 19th – March 9th 2014.

Stephen Sondheim’s favourite from his own songs is “Someone in a Tree” from Pacific Overtures.

Pacific Overtures is set in 1853 and follows the Westernisation of Japan as told from the viewpoint of the Japanese. While the score is considered to be one of Sondheim’s most ambitious efforts, the production has been criticised through the years for telling a Japanese story through the eyes of non-japanese writers.

Watch This Artistic Director Sonya Suares explained the complexity of putting on this particular show – “The play is written by an American composer lyricist in the 70s imagining a version of 19th century Japan, and then we are translating it in 2014 for a Melbourne audience. So there are layers of complexity in that. What we wanted to achieve was to put the audience in the position of the other looking in and centre this notional version of Japan. And that’s a really tricky manoeuvre for an indie company.” 

Sonia Harford quoted Sonya Suares for the Sydney Morning Herald – Suares is fairly certain this work has never been performed in Melbourne. ”I think people are scared of attempting this work because of its conceit – an American playwright attempting a version of Japanese history from the perspective of the Japanese,” she suggests. ”I argue that it does resonate with a contemporary audience. The play is about human responses to incursions from other countries, clashes of ideas.’’

National identity and fear of change emerge as timeless themes. “In our island nation in 2014 there is a resonance around the ideas of ‘stop the boats’. It’s differently configured, people aren’t offshore in gunboats and we’re not talking about the threat of war. But look at the visceral responses here to people crossing our borders, and some people’s idea of what’s at stake as a way of life.”

Suares’ sentiments were echoed throughout the design process. The production was executed with great care and consideration and received much praise for its staging, design elements and performances. Set Designer Eugyeene Teh was inspired by traditional paper designs called kirigami and the symbol ensō. Ensō is a symbol drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes. He says “through the circle, through the ensō, the direction and the choreography realised itself. This was the focal point of the stage and of the show, i think.” 

Costume/ Make-up Designer Chloe Greaves was also inspired by this symbol and paper construction. The production only had an $1000 budget for 30 characters with many costume changes in 19th century clothing. She constructed many of the costumes using lightweight fabric called tyvek, commonly used in painting overalls. She constructed all of the kimonos herself and used calligraphy to create accessories which helped represent different characters when an actor was playing multiple roles. The use of tyvek material, while referencing traditional paper folding art, also added to the soundscape as it created a unique sound when performers moved.

The unique staging and thrifty design elements were executed with great skill and resonated with Melbourne audiences. These artistic choices also supported the themes which Suares believed would engage a 2014 audience – themes of national identity, gentrification and colonisation. Ben Neutze from Daily Review wrote “Eugyeene Teh’s set is attractive, featuring a large, white painted ensō; a circle drawn in one handstroke which symbolises the moment the mind is free to let the body create. Above it, hang bamboo branches, filled with lights, which in the second act are lit red and blue, symbolising the encroachment of American culture on Japan.” 

Rebecca Harkins-Cross for the SMH wrote;  “This is a markedly slicker affair, whose designers make this independent production punch far above its weight. Eugyeene Teh’s set is an exercise in monochrome minimalism that can transform like origami, in keeping with Chloe Greaves’ gossamer kimonos.” 

Melita Pereira for Australian Stage; “During the number “A Bowler Hat”, the audience is invited into the conflicting psychological states that made the westernisation of Japan such a tumultuous experience for the nation. The symbolic evolution of the characters depicted through the colour, music and costume in “A Bowler Hat” are the most memorable and poignant of this musical.”

The productions’ 8 Green Room nominations were a testament to its success. Pacific Overtures was nominated next to many productions with much larger budgets, cementing the artists innovation given their financial restraints. The nominations were as follows;

Male In A Supporting Role – Adrian Li Donni and Nick Simpson-Deeks 

Betty Pounder Award For Excellence In Choreography – Michael Ralph

Musical Direction – Robyn Womersley

Design (Lighting) – Rob Sowinski 

Design (Set/ Costume) – Eugyeene Teh (Set) and Chloe Greaves (Costume)

Direction – Alister Smith 

Production – Pacific Overtures


The cast and crew for the 2014 Pacific Overtures Production:

Director: Alister Smith

Musical Director: Robyn Womersley

Choreographer: Michael Ralph

Set Design: Eugyeene Teh

LX Design: Rob Sowinski

Costume/ Make-Up Design: Chloe Greaves

Production Managers: Linda Hum & Tanje Ruddick

Stage Manager/ Operator: Mel Moldrich

CAST: Bianca Baykara, Anton Berezin, Reece Budin, Emma Clair Ford, Jacqui Hoy, Andrew Kroenert, Adrian Li Donni, Noni McCallum, Tim Paige, Nick Simpson-Deeks, Elenor Smith Adams, Sonya Suares and Leighton Young

Manilla Street Productions turns 10 this year. Follow them on their facebook page. 

In 2020 Watch This is celebrating 8 years of producing Sondheim Productions. For Sondheim’s 90th birthday they have produced a video series on their previous work. You can watch EP 2 about Pacific Overtures here.

Stay tuned for the next feature instalment from the Theatre Works Archive.

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