REVIEW: Lyric Stage brings beauty and powerful perspective to Sondheim’s ‘Pacific Overtures’

Surrounded by wild pink cherry blossoms, Lyric Stage reveals a telling story with Stephen Sondheim’s stirring musical Pacific Overtures, a historical production set in 1853 when a mysterious ship drops anchor on Japan’s remote and tranquil island.  Told entirely from Japan’s perspective, it’s an important tale about conflict, betrayal, and the price of progress.

Skillfully directed by Spiro Veloudos, musically-directed by Jonathan Goldberg, and choreographed by Micheline Wu, Lyric Stage presents Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures through June 16 at 140 Clarendon Street in Boston, Massachusetts.  Click here for more information and tickets.

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Jeff Song and The cast of Pacific Overtures. Photo by Mark S. Howard.

The Lyric Stage has a knack for surprises.  They take on a variety of shows throughout the season, from contemporary to original productions to traditional musicals, but one thing they all have in common is it is hard to imagine how the show will play out onstage.  Though rarely performed, Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures is an unpredictable, multi-layered musical that delivers an unforgettable message about power and prosperity.

Between scenic designer Janie E Howland’s hand painted set, the sloping wild pink cherry blossoms, Gail Astrid Buckley’s rich and historically-accurate costumes, and Karen Perlow’s clever light design, Lyric Stage brings to life Japan’s beautiful and increasingly tumultuous landscape.  This show does an excellent job at depicting a sympathetic, humorous, and at times, haunting look of how Japan saw the outside world.

Choreographer Micheline Wu’s reflects Japan’s distinct culture in sharp choreography, integrating samurai tradition while carefully letting a bit of westernization seep in.  Kai Chao as relentless Commodore Perry struts into a patriotic, humorous, and cunning Lion Dance while Wu herself, who also depicts Tamate and other roles, captures Tamate’s raw vulnerability in a fan dance during the reflective number, There is No Other Way.

Lyric Stage Pacific Overtures cast

The cast of Lyric Stage’s ‘Pacific Overtures’ Photo by Mark S. Howard

Enthusiastically recited by Lisa Yuen, who was last seen on the Lyric Stage as the mesmerizing Spider Woman in Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman, Yuen delicately balances the tale she tells with a mix of humor and urgency, occasionally stepping into the story itself.  That could be an awkward transition, but it’s one that Yuen takes on with ease.

Carl Hsu portrays Kayama, a quietly conflicted fisherman thrust into the spotlight to solve a seemingly impossible issue.  Hsu’s wistful, soaring vocals reflect his alienation as western culture attempts to take hold in Bowler Hat.  Inquisitive and awestruck, he struggles to adjust to Japan’s seeming future.

Lyric Stage Pacific Overtures Carl Hsu and Sam Hamashima

Carl Hsu as Kayama and Sam Hamashima as Manjiro in ‘Pacific Overtures’ Photo by Mark S. Howard

Sam Hamashima portrays Massachusetts fisherman prisoner Manjiro, a man with mysterious intentions.  Hamasima and Hsu show low key camaraderie as they improvise together during the number PoemsGary Thomas Ng takes on several roles, but proves to be at his funniest as the Grandmother in the lighthearted number, Welcome to Kanagawa.

Lyric Stage Pacific Overtures Welcome to Kanagawa

Alexander Holden, Gary Thomas Ng, Karina Wen, and Kai Chao in Pacific Overtures. Photo by Mark S. Howard.

Change can be painful.  From a remote, peaceful, self-sufficient island to an economic powerhouse to the home of the 2020 Olympics, Japan has worn many faces and overcame many obstacles.  Pacific Overtures depicts the raw emotion and a sympathetic perspective on what that might have felt like along the way.

Lyric Stage continues Stephen Sondheim’s moving musical, Pacific Overtures through Sunday, June 16 at 140 Clarendon Street in Boston, Massachusetts.  Click here for tickets and more information.  Subscriptions and dinner packages are also available.  Follow The Lyric Stage on Twitter and Facebook for their upcoming productions and more.

Music Director Jamie Kirsch talks Chorus pro Musica’s concert version of comedy musical, ‘Of Thee I Sing’

A spectacular evening of comedy, romance, and award-winning music is in store with Chorus pro Musica’s concert version of Gershwin Of Thee I Sing on Saturday, May 13 at Robbins Memorial Town Hall in Arlington, Massachusetts at 8 p.m.  In the spirit of the show, concert attendees are encouraged to dress in 30s-inspired attire for a costume contest.  Click here for full details and tickets.

Jamie Kirsch is in his fourth year as Music Director of Chorus pro Musica and loves his work.  He offers a closer look into Of Thee I Sing, his incredible work with Chorus pro Musica, and more.

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Chorus pro Musica’s Music Director Jamie Kirsch in action Photo courtesy of Alonso Nichols/Tufts University

Jeanne Denizard:  What I absolutely love about Gershwin Of Thee I Sing is it is part concert and part theatrical production.  It has comedy and romance as well.

Jamie Kirsch:  Yeah, writers definitely have called it a work.  It is a unified single where there’s no instantly recognizable tune in this show in the way one would recognize other Gershwin’s most famous songs from musicals that can be extracted and don’t have anything necessarily to do with the plot.  They don’t appear in the best of Gershwin albums because for the most part, everything is tied to that story.  There might be one or two songs that someone might recognize such as the title song of Of Thee I Sing and certainly people have recorded the song, Who Cares, but no song that would be on people’s top ten list of pieces they know because they bought a greatest hits album or a Michael Feinstein album.  They are wonderful songs, but they are all tied to the book.

JD:  I also understand that this is the first musical to win a Pulitzer Prize.

JK:  It did win the Pulitzer Prize in 1932.  Everyone won the Pulitzer except for George Gershwin because there was no Music Pulitzer at the time.  Ira, Kaufman, and Ryskind got it.  I think actually it was awarded to George posthumously where there finally was a music Pulitzer.

JD:  Of Thee I Sing surrounds the election of John P. Wintergreen and deals with politics in a humorous and lighthearted way.  I understand you really were excited about this particular piece to add to the season more for the music than for its political statement though we had a heated election just recently.

JK:  Yes, it doesn’t make a political statement one way or another.  There is no political party mentioned, making fun of both sides equally.  We also picked the piece well over a year ago.  The current players in the real world were still in the primaries and no one had any inkling of what was to transpire and how unexpected it would be.

Numerous colleges and universities did the show right around the election.  It is remarkable how many across the entire country, even major schools of music.  The University of Michigan did it in October and November knowing what was going on.  We had the same idea, hoping it would be a relevant topic but we didn’t plan for any outcome either way.  Separate from the political stuff, it happens to be a musical dominated by choruses and it made perfect sense to do it with our chorus.

JD:  Now, are you going to be performing a lot of scenes from the show?

JK:  Yes, it is a concert version.  We’re doing most of it, just without the staging.

JD:  I understand it has some comedy and a bit of romance as well.

JK:  Absolutely, there are elements common to musical theatre.  People talk about how different it is from anything else Gershwin wrote, but the other side of that coin is a love triangle.  Certainly plenty of musicals have love triangles and also present is an element of the exotic where a French ambassador arrives in the second act and that happens throughout many other musicals.  It’s new, but it has ties to the standard, more traditional musical theatre.

JD:  It sounds like there will be lots of surprises.

JK:  Yes, there will be musical surprises.  It has a Gershwin, jazzy sound and Gershwin rhythms and syncopation, but it is really unique.  There are scenes that go on and on and mostly music for a good ten minutes.  It’s kind of like Gilbert and Sullivan in that way.  That is an example of a piece of music that cannot be extracted.  You are not going to perform that at a musical theatre cabaret as you would with another Gershwin tune.

JD:  You will have featured artists such as Margot Rood, Christina English, and David McFerrin.

JK:  They are three of the best singers around town and the city and I have worked with a couple of them before.  They are just wonderful, so flexible, and able to handle this repertoire and style as easily as they are able to handle early and baroque music.  They are so incredibly versatile, talented, and wonderful actors.  Having them on board for this production is very special.

JD:  You are also the sixth Music Director of Chorus pro Musica.  The chorus has existed close to 70 years.  What is it like to conduct this chorus?

JK:  It’s a joy.  The musicians are incredibly hard working, love challenging themselves, conquering major works, and striving for excellence.  They are so supportive of each other, collegial, and just wonderful people.  They care so much about the product and each other, the chorus, and its history.

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Chorus pro Musica group shot Photo courtesy of Eric Antoniou

I’m very grateful to be able to do the things that we do with Chorus pro Musica.  In this season alone, we have done maybe the greatest work by Beethoven and some of the greatest works by Mahler.  Then we move on to Gershwin.  We are dealing with pretty amazing people.  I’ve written some amazing music and this chorus is up for the challenge to perform these pieces at an extremely high level while also keeping a good balance of fun while we do it.

JD:  This is your fourth year with Chorus pro Musica, but I understand that you are involved in a lot of projects.  You’re a busy man in music.

JK:  Yes, I am fortunate enough to be on the music faculty at Tufts as my main job and finishing my seventh year there.  It’s a wonderful job and I work with amazing colleagues who are at the tops of their field and teaching theory and musicology.  I teach in a beautiful building with supportive faculty and administration and wonderful students.  We recently did the Mozart C Minor mass.  Yes, between Chorus pro Musica and Tufts, I’m a pretty lucky person.

Chorus Pro Musica Boston City Singers

Family Holiday Concert 2014 Boston City Singers Photo courtesy of Chorus pro Musica

JD:  Do you have a favorite piece of music you like to conduct or a piece you are hoping to conduct with Chorus pro Musica?

JK:  One of the great things about the Chorus is that they are able to handle everything from a candlelight Christmas concert to Beethoven’s greatest works to Gershwin to new, modern pieces.  One of our strong suits is commissioning new works so we are commissioning brand new works by new composers.  They are able to handle any style, genre, and that is what I like to do.  It keeps things interesting for me and for the singers to switch gears from month to month.  Just to be able to be flexible in that way so the chorus matches my strength and my wanting to keep exploring, pushing, challenging, finding new, undiscovered music, create new music, commission new music, so I think in that way, it’s a very good match.

Chorus Pro Musica NE Philharmonic and Providence Singers

Chorus pro Musica with the New England Philharmonic and the Providence Singers, performing Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, March 14, 2012 in Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross.

JD:  You’ve also worked with a few Boston organizations and collaborated with them in the past.

JK:  We collaborated with the Boston Philharmonic a number of times and we will continue to do so.  We have a wonderful relationship with Ben Zander and the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and with Richard Pittman and the New England Philharmonic.  We did a number of wonderful collaborations with Richard Pittman.  We are always seeking out new collaborations because they are always great fun, enhance the groups, and work out well for everybody.

Click here for tickets to Gershwin Of Thee I Sing on May 13 at 8 p.m.  It will be an exciting evening that includes a post-concert reception.  Click here for more on Chorus Pro Musica and how to support their mission.

The Company Theatre will hold auditions for Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’

While the award-winning Company Theatre continues their sold-out run of Academy of the Company Theatre’s (A.C.T.) musical production of Disney’s The Lion King, Jr. through Sunday, April 30, another Disney production will soon be in the works.  The Company Theatre is going under the sea for the adult version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid, with auditions will soon be held on Wednesday, May 3 and callbacks on Thursday, May 4.  Both dates take place at Company Theatre in Norwell, Massachusetts at 6:30 p.m.  Click here for further information.

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Company Theatre presents Disney’s ‘The Little Mermaid’ this summer. Courtesy of the Company Theatre

Based on the beloved Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale of the same name, The Little Mermaid follows the adventures of Ariel, the mermaid daughter of the mighty king of the sea, King Triton. Accompanied by a crab named Sebastian and a cute little fish named Flounder, Ariel gets a glimpse of a world above the sea and longs to take on that great adventure with unforeseen consequences. Under the Sea, Kiss the Girl, and Part of Your World are just a few of the unforgettable songs composed by Alan Menken from Disney’s The Little Mermaid, a heartwarming story for the entire family.

Directed by Zoe Bradford and Jordie Saucerman, choreography by Sally Forrest, and musical direction by Steve Bass, all roles are open for casting and will take place at the Company Theatre Center for the Arts, 30 Accord Park Drive in Norwell, Massachusetts. Audition candidates should be strong singers and be prepared to sing a song from the show in the show’s key or a song in a similar musical style. A headshot or snapshot and a resume is preferred at the audition, but not required. Audition candidates may bring their own sheet music, but the music score will be available with accompaniment.  Please dress appropriately to learn and practice a dance combination.

If unable to attend auditions and are located out of state, the Company Theatre is also accepting video submissions at sally@companytheatre.com.  All submissions must be sent by Tuesday, May 2.

Performances for Disney’s The Little Mermaid will be held from Friday, July 28 through Sunday, July 30 and continuing Wednesdays through Sundays through Sunday, August 20.  Click here for tickets and for further information about the auditions, email sally@companytheatre.com, or call 1-781-871-2787.  Family and Friends Friday offers limited amount of discounted tickets for four or more.  Click here for more information about the Company Theatre’s fabulous 2017 season and follow them on Facebook.