Pacific Overtures a telling tale of imperialism

This week, the Alice Austin Theatre will host the musical Pacific Overtures by Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman. Associate professor of performing arts Randy Kaplan both directed and choreographed the show, and associate professor and School of the Performing Arts Chair Jack Johnston acted as musical director for the orchestra.

Pacific Overtures tells the story of the West's initial contact with isolationist feudal Japan during the 19th century and the effects of this event. The story is told from the point of view of the inhabitants of the thriving city of Nippon, including a young samurai named Kayama (junior Aaron Netsky), a fisherman recently returned from America named Manjiro (senior Alex MacDonald) and several councilors to the Shogun.

Despite the significance of these few parts, however, the show, according to Kaplan, "has a cast of 25 filling nearly 40 roles," each of which adds to the storyline. In fact, during several songs (like the opening number) the majority of the cast was present on the stage at once. Yet Kaplan's successful choreography kept such sequences from seeming cluttered, instead creating an authentic re-creation of a bustling pre-colonial oriental society. Similarly, Johnston's direction of the orchestra added to the atmosphere of the show, further capturing its cultural message and dynamic nature.

The cast did an excellent job of performing the songs and the roles, both in groups and individually. Netsky, for example, gave an impressive rendition of the song "A Bowler Hat," symbolizing his character's slow abandonment of the traditions of his culture for the "temptations of the West." MacDonald, likewise, did an excellent job acting as "emissary" to the Americans with his dramatic movements and flamboyant style, and later as an official samurai determined to restore the culture of his country at all costs. Narrating the events of the musical was senior Daniel Fenaughty, whose excellent annunciation and strong voice greatly assisted the audience in following the plot and also added dramatic effect to the musical.

Pacific Overtures as a musical made many poignant comments on the effects of imperialism and the modern consequences of Western domination over Eastern cultures. As Kaplan, who is also the director of Asian studies at Geneseo, said, "It shows the consequences" of what can happen when one culture forces itself upon another.

However, the storyline was strange if not surreal, particularly the first act, leaving audience members somewhat confused about the realities of what was occurring in the show. The second act made a much more recognizable argument for the unpredictable consequences of cultural domination.

It included such striking displays of Japanese life after the "invasion" of the West, such as the corruption of the government, violent conflicts between Europeans and local citizens, the prostitution of geisha women, and other disruptions to the former way of life of the people of Nippon. Overall, the talents of the cast, crew, and Kaplan and Johnston make the Geneseo's production of Pacific Overtures a worthwhile show to see.

Pacific Overtures opened on Wednesday night and will be shown through Saturday night this week at 8 p.m., and on Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Alice Austin Theatre. Tickets are $7 for the public, $6 for faculty and seniors and $5 for students, and can be purchased either online at or in the Brodie Box Office.