Sondheims’ Pacific Overtures comes to Melbourne

Sonya Suares, Adrian Li Donni, Nick Simpson-Deeks  (front), Reece Budin, Anton Berezin, Bianca Baykara Photo:  Sara Walker
Sonya Suares, Adrian Li Donni, Nick Simpson-Deeks
(front), Reece Budin, Anton Berezin, Bianca Baykara
Photo: Sara Walker

Pacific Overtures is perhaps one of Stephen Sondheim’s most ambitious musicals. It straddles two cultures, two vastly incompatible musical styles, and with a cast of over 50 characters, it demands audience engagement. In 2014 Pacific Overtures will have its first theatrical season in Melbourne, under the direction of Alister Smith.

Annie Ferguson caught up with Smith to discuss the progress of the show so far.

The narrative of Pacific Overtures begins in 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry of the United States Navy, commanding a squadron of two steamers and two sailing vessels, sailed into Tôkyô harbor with the aim of forcing Japan to enter into trade with the United States. What followed was an attempt to ‘stop the boats’; to prevent the Americans from entering Japanese sovereign land.

So how does a musical about an American in Japan over 150 years ago relate to contemporary Melbourne? Smith is adamant that this narrative is still relevant to Australian audiences; “It’s a piece that demands the audience to look at the world through someone elses eyes; to take time to look at the possibility of change. I was drawn to the idea of the cyclical nature of human beings; we seem to be making the same mistakes all the time. This story from 1853 is all about people afraid of another race, another culture. People are still afraid of those who are different, without taking the time to listen to one another. Why aren’t we learning?”

With just over a week until opening night the rehearsal process is well underway and Smith seems cool, calm and collected about how the show is evolving; “The rehearsals have been great. I like to work collaboratively. So, we have had six months of pre-production and we are essentially integrating everything with two weeks on the floor. We are doing a lot of explorative work as well; working with the ensemble in an abstract manner to build the musical from the ground up.” Much of the rehearsal process has involved this ‘ground-up’ method with the text being pulled apart to find the most relevant themes and ideas for Australian audiences. The original fifty-six characters have been distilled to be split between just 13 actors and. whilst the show still maintains the stylistic elements of Japanese and American culture, the overriding themes are of cultural miscommunication, the ideas that originally drew Smith to the work: “I am really interested in works that are humanist in their explorations, works that are focused on shifting social and moral paradigms; that is the kind of work I seek out because I feel we have a civic responsibility as artists to take on the hard challenges.”

Smith trained in music theatre at the Ballarat Arts Academy but much of his professional career has been as a directorl. In the last five years he has pursued this avenue more seriously, with professional training at the Victorian College of the Arts allowing him to learn new skills. Smith has also worked with MKA and MTC opening him up to the world of contemporary theatre practices. Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this show will be is construction; it is a musical, but not as we know it.

Bianca Baykara, Sonya Suares Photo:  Sarah Walker
Bianca Baykara, Sonya Suares
Photo: Sarah Walker

Pacific Overtures has been produced in conjunction with Manilla Street Productions and Watch This. Both companies are interested in creating professional level musical theatre in intimate settings, a concept that is equally appealing to Smith. Watch This is a particularly exciting young theatre company. After a debut sell-out season of The Assassins in 2013 at fortyfivedownstairs, the company has continued to explore how the principles of independent theatre practice can be taken and applied to independent music theatre. This involves making music theatre more accessible and working on audience development, but Smith is confident that this new approach will thrive in Melbourne.

Pacific Overtures is certainly an exciting new work, from an exciting young director with bold ideas and a strong sense of artistic vision. Smith is confident that this is a work audiences will love; “The audience will definitely be in for something new and exciting. This musical is beautiful, tragic and epic beyond belief. We are really excited to share the work we have been doing. I think Melbourne is going to be surprised”. Smith encourages audiences to come with an open mind, ready to see a new approach to music theatre and a thrilling new presentation of a well-known work.

Pacific Overtures runs from 19th February until 9th March at Theatre Works, St Kilda.

For bookings and further information, visit:

Jan Chandler

Jan has been working freelance in the arts industry for some 15+ years in a variety of roles including: arts management; journalism (print, radio and online); publicity; and media relations. Passionate about the arts in all their variety, Jan has worked in film (production assistant; reviewer); dance (publicity; producer and presenter of 'Dance Dialogues - 3CR) and Board Member of Ausdance (Victoria)); performing arts (company manager, performer, reviewer, online editor). Jan had the honour of being the General Manager of Ilbijerri Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Theatre for some 18 months.

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