Old Is New Again

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porchlight-pacific-overtures.jpgeclipse-blue-surge.jpgIn 2001, three years after I moved to Chicago, I resolved to make theatergoing a semi-regular habit. It was a good time to do so, because the spanking new Goodman Theater on Dearborn St. just opened. One of the first productions to grace its stage was a world premiere by Rebecca Gilman, directed by Artistic Director Robert Falls, called Blue Surge, about a pair of cops and a pair of sex workers whose paths cross in the seamy underside of an unnamed Midwestern town. I remember feeling very underwhelmed by the play, and I wasn’t sure at that time if it was the flawed writing, or the fact that for such an emotionally coiled, small-scaled piece, the Goodman’s Albert Theater felt like a cavernous museum. It was notable for me though as one of the first plays I saw which demonstrated Chicago male actors’ infamous propensity to drop trou at the slightest provocation (in this case, it was the terrific Steve Key playing the more laidback police officer, who performed his entire first scene au naturel) which I always seem to be an inadvertent witness to. Later in 2001, I saw the Chicago Shakespeare’s production of a sublime, minimalist, thoroughly unforgettable Pacific Overtures, directed by a pre-Color Purple Gary Griffin, a mounting of Stephen Sondheim’s mid-1970s Broadway flop about the opening up of Japan to the West through Commodore Perry. It was so excellent, it blew away any of the productions I saw at the much-heralded Sondheim Festival at the Kennedy Center earlier in the year. Wow, how time flies; eight years later, these two plays are getting new productions: Pacific Overtures is being staged with an all-Asian American cast by our resident musical theater company, Porchlight Music Theatre, while Blue Surge, which to my knowledge hasn’t been revived since the original production, is being mounted at the compact Greenhouse Theater by the storefront Eclipse Theatre Company. This time around, my views of the two productions are the reverse of my response to the 2001 productions: I think Eclipse’s Blue Surge is a great example of what I’ve come to expect from our best storefronts, intense, committed, full of sweat and soul; while Porchlight’s Pacific Overtures is a huge disappointment from a company that in my eyes could do no wrong.

In my mind, if there was one theater company who could stage a Pacific Overtures that will erase any memories of the Gary Griffin production, it’s Porchlight Theatre, who, by specializing in musical theater, would know the form inside out, upside down, pitfalls sidestepped. I strongly feel that last season’s Nine, and the productions of Sondheim works they’ve staged through the years, such as Company, Sweeney Todd, and most-recently Assassins, were scintillating examples of musical theater at the top of its transformative powers. Pacific Overtures, in my opinion, is the most complex of Sondheim’s works (and I’ve seen multiple versions of all of them through the years being a genetically-wired musical theater queen): its score was originally written for male voices performing female singing roles, in the tradition of Kabuki theater and uses a really demanding pentatonic scale (or five pitches per octave), a style very much more common in Asian music than in Western ones; the material is written from the Japanese point of view but by non-Japanese, which could deteriorate into condescension and simplification if taken too seriously; a lot of Sondheim and book writer John Weidman’s perpectives were shaped by the time they wrote the play in, the mid 1970s, so some of their ideas (Japan as a reluctant superpower? Cmon!) are outdated. The play needs a very delicate, subtle, but confident sensibility in both conceptualization and staging.

Unfortunately, there is very little delicacy of anything in Porchlight’s current Pacific Overtures. There is a lot of struggle, though, in the singing from the all-Asian ensemble (and I hate to say this as an Asian person myself, but politically-correct casting doesn’t mean theatrically-appropriate casting; I would rather have seen non-Asian actors who could effectively tackle Sondheim’s complex score), with “Four Black Dragons” and one third of “Someone in a Tree” (Sondheim’s favorite song of all time, by the way), specifically, unfortunately mangled by strenuously delivered, best-effort, singing. There’s some very clumsy staging (such as in the song “There Is No Other Way” and in the entrance/exit through the tatami screens). David Rhee’s Reciter, narrator and commenter on the action, is a little too enthusiastic and dramatic, instead of being subtly all-knowing and removed like Joe Foronda’s portrayal in the Chicago Shakespeare production, which ends up too grating for this particular audience member; there are also some wandering notes during the opening number. And the staging, tone, and tenor of one of my most favorite Sondheim numbers of all time, “Chrysanthemum Tea”, where the Shogun’s mother slowly poisons her ineffective son, a brilliant, complex sketch of the internal politics of Japanese government is baffling: a song which is supposed to be very subtle and delicate (there are those words again!) as well as very sinister and malevolent, comes off as a plea to drink the tea! What? Tea drinking is as much a point of this number as having an acting career is the point of Lindsay Lohan’s life! Regrettably, this number is low-impact, simplified, and not memorably-sung.

I do like several things in director L. Walter Stearn’s production and vehemently disagree with Timeout Chicago’s description of this show as “community dinner theater” (having seen a lot of shows at Chanhassen Dinner Theaters while living in Minnesota, Porchlight is too classy, polished, and savvy to be called that!). I think the “Welcome to Kanagawa” number is appropriate bawdy and wink-wink, and really well-sung. I love Cerqua Rivera Dance Company Artistic Director Wilfredo Rivera’s evocative choreography for “Lion Dance” (intricately performed by Chip Payos) and the closing number “Next”. I think Keith Uchima valiantly saves “Someone in a Tree” with his powerful singing and excellent comic timing. I think “Pretty Lady” still comes off as the masterpiece song that it is. Going to Porchlight’s Pacific Overtures was one of those nights when I arrived at the theater expecting to really, really love the show. Unfortunately, it just shows that expectations should always be tempered.

I had no expectations going to Eclipse’s Blue Surge, except for the fact there will be another fully-frontally nude male actor on stage. And yes, Eclipse Artistic Director Nathaniel Swift bravely delivers, but the pivotal, dramatically potent nature of that nude scene clearly comes through in this tautly-staged production (in the Goodman production, I thought Steve Key’s nudity was a little gratuitous). I really think that the material, about economically-disadvantaged ordinary people trying to escape the circumstances they were born into and failing, requires a small, focused staging that allows the audience to directly engage with the actors: see every sweat bead, spit ball, emotional stretch mark that defines Gilman’s unfortunate characters. And sure-handed director Anish Jethmalani has a quintet of marvelous actors that bravely and convincingly inhabit their characters. Swift is terrific as the totally low-brow, unambitious, grey-area baiting cop, Doug, who is also a loyal friend. Kevin Scott plays his partner Curt, and the play’s main protagonist, as a complex Regular Joe struggling with his anger and frustration at his social status and class distinctions with his girlfriend, with an almost naïve hope that with good intentions one can overcome them. His diatribe against his girlfriend Beth (a memorable Kerry Richlan in the smallest of the roles) about what her true intentions are for wanting to marry him socks you in the gut with its intensity and feverish passion. Sasha Gioppo as Doug’s massage therapist turned girlfriend is both funny and heartbreakingly real at the same time. But this play really belongs to Laura Coover, who as Sandy, the recipient of Curt’s ambiguous love-charity-Messiah complex strikes the right balance of brittle-tough, ambitious-desperate, and unnerved-innocent (Sandy’s not yet twenty one after all). It’s a very nuanced performance, so much more superior to Rachel Miner’s in the original Goodman production which eventually moved off-Broadway. I like the simple set that Jethmalani employs, both pragmatic and realistic, it is the type of set that I would envision the material to have, not the humungous set that Walt Spangler designed for the Goodman version (I always wondered why the economically-struggling Curt would have an apartment larger and better furnished than mine).  Although, I think Gilman writes with insight, and I am amazed at how prescient she was into the struggles that have befallen our contemporary times back in 2001 when the country was in good times/house of plenty mode, I’m still not completely sold on her plays (I feel some of her writing comes off academic and intellectual, versus emotional and visceral, see Spinning into Butter, Dollhouse, etc.), but this particular production of Blue Surge is a pretty convincing advocate for the value and impact of her work. And that’s a great thing.

Pacific Overtures is at the Theater Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont until May 3.  That’s the same day Blue Surge at the Greenhouse Theatre, 2257 N. Lincoln, is closing.

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