Reviewed by Neal Weaver
Chromolume Theatre at the Attic
Through December 17
Premiering in 1976, this unique and unusual musical, with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, and additional material by Hugh Wheeler, has no love story and no romantic ballads. Instead, it provides a lively impressionistic history of the Westernization of Japan, from 1853, when Commodore Perry opened up the isolated nation to world trade, to the present.
Japan had driven all foreigners out two hundred years earlier, and hoped to maintain its splendid isolation for all time. But when the American navy arrived in the form of four well-armed gunships commanded by Perry, the local citizenry panicked. This is played out in a musical number called “Four Black Dragons,” which is how the populace view the American ships. The two countries are totally unprepared to understand one another. The Americans are arrogant and overbearing, while Japan is in a state of disorganization, with a figurehead emperor dominated by the Shoguns, who choose not to intervene.
A low-level samurai, Kayama (Cesar Cipriano) is shanghaied into meeting and negotiating with the Americans. Working with an Americanized Japanese sailor, Manjiro (Daryl Leonardo), he concocts a loony plan which hopefully will allow Japanese people to pretend that the Americans were never there at all (thus saving face). The plan involves covering the land with straw mats, so they can claim that the Americans never set foot on the sacred soil of the homeland.
This seems to work for a time, but after Perry and his ships depart, emissaries of other nations arrive to arrange trade treaties, which prove even more disruptive to traditional Japanese life. This is presented as a musical number called “Please Hello,” in which representatives of England, Holland, Russia and France demand to have their treaties signed. And in a choice example of musical wit, each emissary sings in the style of his nation: the Brit communicates via Gilbert and Sullivan patter songs, while the prickly Russian intones gloomy evocations of the Volga Boat Song, and the Frenchman revels in the spirit of ooh-la-la. The Western merchants then proceed to wreck the Japanese economy by importing things the Japanese people don’t want or need, and exporting all the things they can’t live without.
I did not see the original Broadway production, but I did see the first major revival, which was notable for the opulence of its costumes, props and set pieces. So I was fearful that the more modest resources of the Attic Theatre would not be able to capture the excitement of the Broadway version. But in fact, director James Esposito, choreographer Michael Marchak, and musical director Daniel Yokomizo have scaled down the production with such tact that this production gains in clarity and dramatic power. Particularly in Act 2, the material seems more hard-hitting than it was on Broadway.
The production is remarkably even-handed, showing up the absurdities of both the Japanese governing powers and the American and European invaders. And the number “Next” sketches a couple of centuries of history in telling detail.
Paul Wong brings enormous dignity and authority to the role of the narrator, here called the Reciter. Cipriano is a stalwart Kayama, and Leonardo is a wily and street-smart Manjiro. But the real star of the show is the 8-actor ensemble, whose members play multiple roles with skill and energy.
Hector Figueroa created the simple but effective set design, Kara McLeod provides the handsome and suggestive costuming, and Jesse Baldridge supplies the effective lighting.
Chromolume Theatre at the Attic, 5429 W. Washington Boulevard, Los Angeles. Fri.-Sat., 9 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m. (323) 205-1617 or www.crtheatre.com. Running time: approximately two hours and 15 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.